Factions seek control of Basra, country’s second largest city and vital outlet to the Gulf.
As Iraqi troops paraded through Basra after taking charge of the province’s security from the British on Sunday, violence and political instability continued elsewhere in southern Iraq.
Salem al-Misilmawi, the governor of Babel and a senior member of the Islamic Supreme Council (ISC), a Shia party, survived an assassination attempt as he led a tribal delegation to a meeting in Baghdad.
They were to meet Abd al-Aziz Hakim, chairman of the ISC.
Last week, Qais al-Mamouri, also a Shia and commander of the Babel governorate police force, was killed in a roadside bomb attack.
A day later, a triple car bombing in the southern city of Amara killed 43 people.
Fadil Abu Hussain, an Iraqi journalist based in Babel, said that the assassinations and attacks were likely to increase in the wake of the British security handover as Iraqi Shia parties vie for power.
“The Babel police commander was killed because he opposed the rule of religious parties,” he said.
“A few days before he was killed he had led a patrol himself and shut down the headquarters of [Muqtada] al-Sadr’s and al-Hakim’s parties in Jabla district in Babel.”
Battle for supremacy
Shia on Shia violence in southern Iraq has intensified over the past year as the ICS, al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, and the al-Fadila party have sought control of Basra, the strategic southern ports, and trade routes to Iran.
Abu Hussain said the parties were locked in a battle for supremacy in Iraq’s economic and political future.
He told Al Jazeera: “Al-Sadr and al-Hakim each have their own war going on. They each fear losing their influence in Basra and Baghdad.”
“We as Iraqi southerners believe there will be tough days ahead.”
In July, the Mahdi Army committed itself to a six-month freeze on military activities and has demonstrated self-restraint by not responding to a campaign of arrests of its leaders and fighters.
On October 6, al-Hakim and al-Sadr signed an agreement ending months of hostility between their followers.
However, the agreement did not last and fighting quickly resumed.
Now, al-Sadr openly accuses the Shia al-Dawa party of Nuri al-Maliki, the prime minister, and al-Hakim of leading a campaign to eliminate his influence in southern Iraq.
Ahmad al-Masoudi, an MP from the al-Sadr movement, said: “The ruling parties want us out, simply because we never tolerated the US occupation, and constantly call for the Iraq’s integrity. We reject the break-up of Iraq, which al-Hakim wants under the slogan of federalism.”
Masoudi said there was a limit to the Mahdi Army’s patience in the face of attacks and arrests.
“There have been serious violations to our people’s rights, their families have been insulted by government forces over and over, I do not know how long they will be able to tolerate that,” he said.
“Definitely our people will not stand helpless at the aggression against their honour and beliefs.”
Mohamad al-Himaidawi, a Shia MP from al-Fadila Party, agrees that there is an ongoing campaign to weaken the Sadr movement in the south.
“This is not the first time the ruling parties have tried something like this. It happened before with our party, al-Fadila,” he said.
“I think the reason behind that is to prepare for coming crucial decisions. They know that the Sadr movement would not agree if they continue to have their say over Iraqi issues.”
Iraqi government officials were not available for comment, but Saad Qandeel, member of the ISC political bureau in Baghdad, rejected outright all accusations that his party is behind the increased violence in the south.
He said: “The campaign of arrests is being carried out by the government, not by us, and this government is a national unity government consisting of many parties. So why are the Sadrists accusing us only?
“The government has been carrying out a military campaign to impose law and order. We think the arrests against the Mahdi Army in southern Iraq falls under this criterion. The government wants the arms to be in the hands of government forces only.”
The campaign against the Mahdi Army has been causing civil strife and stirring deep-seated rivalries in southern Iraq.
The al-Sadr and al-Hakim families have been locked in a decades-old dispute over leadership of the Hawza in Najaf, the highest Shia authority in the world.
Millions visit the Hawza-controlled shrines in Iraq and their contributions and donations are believed to reach tens of millions of dollars every year.
Al-Sadr claims that the Hawza has been under the control of Iran-based clerics for centuries and it was time an Iraqi Arab institution took responsibility.
However, many Shia scholars reject that approach, saying competence should be the criteria and not nationality or race.