March 25 Iraqi security forces battled the Mehdi Army militia in Basra on Tuesday in a drive to win control of the southern oil city, but violence appeared to be spreading to Baghdad and other cities.
Two powerful factions of Iraq's Shi'ite majority, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and the Mehdi Army militia of Moqtada al-Sadr, are fighting for power in Basra along with a smaller Shi'ite party, Fadhila.
Here are some details on the main players:
* SADR MOVEMENT:
-- Loyalists of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr are widely seen as the most influential group on the streets of Basra. Sadr's political movement and Mehdi Army militia have popular support. Critics accuse them of using violence to impose strict Islamic rules, a charge Sadrists deny.
-- The Sadrists recently signed a truce with other major Shi'ite parties, agreeing that militia members would not carry guns openly as long as security forces do not target them.
-- Unlike the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, Sadr opposes the idea of federalism for the south.
-- The militia has kept a low profile since Sadr called a ceasefire last August and extended it last month.
-- But gunbattles in Baghdad and the southern city of Kut last week have raised fears that it may be unravelling at a time when the U.S. military is withdrawing 20,000 troops.
* SUPREME ISLAMIC IRAQI COUNCIL:
-- The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) has a strong following in Basra and, like the Sadrists, has built up support by running charities to help the poor.
-- The party, engaged in a power struggle with Sadr's followers across much of the south, joined Sadr in opposing the governor of Basra, who belongs to the smaller Shi'ite Fadhila Party.
-- The Supreme Council favours the creation of a large federal region with wide autonomy that would include the nine southern mainly Shi'ite provinces.
* FADHILA PARTY:
-- The Fadhila Party is a small Shi'ite Islamist party which has little clout in other parts of the country but controls the position of governor in Basra. Fadhila is believed to have influence in the Southern Oil Company, which through exports from Basra supplies nearly all of the government's funds.
-- The party's spiritual leader is Sheikh Mohammed al-Yaqoubi, a student of Moqtada al-Sadr's father, a connection that has heightened rivalry between the groups.
-- Fadhila, fearful of plans for a Shi'ite super-region which might be controlled from the holy city of Najaf, favours autonomy for Basra.
* SECURITY FORCES:
-- Iraq has 30,000 soldiers and police to keep the peace in Basra. They are commanded by army Lieutenant-General Mohan al-Furaiji and police chief Major-General Abdul-Jalil Khalaf, both of whom were appointed in June as part of the central government's plan to combat militia influence.
-- The commanders have spoken out against militia violence, making them popular with Basra residents. U.S. and British commanders rank them among the best generals in Iraq. Both Furaiji and Khalaf have survived several assassination attempts.
* BRITISH FORCES:
-- Hoshiyar Zebari, Iraq's foreign minister poured scorn on British forces in southern Iraq earlier this month, saying they were "doing nothing" and had allowed the city of Basra to be overrun by militants.
-- After the handover of Basra, Britain has around 4,100 troops based in southern Iraq, almost all of them in a fortified encampment at Basra air base just outside the city.
-- Britain had hoped to draw down at least half of the troops left in Iraq and possibly pull out the entire force by the end of the year, but those prospects are looking less likely because of renewed violence. (Writing by Mussab Al-Khairalla and David Cutler)