Abbas and Ahmed usually try not to talk politics. They're both Shias from Karbala—brothers, in fact—but a violent hatred divides their two camps. Abbas, 29, is a guard at a mosque controlled by the firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. His brother Ahmed, 27, works for a security company run by the Badr organization under Sadr's blood enemies, the Hakim family.
The two men couldn't keep from shouting at each other last week. Ahmed furiously blamed Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia for the shoot-outs that were erupting in Baghdad, Basra and other cities. "Who is Moqtada to make the situation good or bad when he wants to?" he demanded. "He only follows his emotions!" Abbas would have none of it. To him, Sadr will always be a hero, the leader of the fight to stop Sunni death squads from massacring Shiite civilians in 2006 and 2007. "He and all the Mahdi Army protected the Shia! Without them, the Wahhabis [Sunni hard-liners] would have killed all the Shia in Baghdad!" As Ahmed stormed out of the room, Abbas gave a final jab. "The money from your job is haram [unclean]!" he hissed. "The Hakim family is stealing money from the people!"
Their family argument stopped short of violence. But by the end of last week, at least 100 Iraqis had been killed in battles between the Mahdi Army and the Iraqi government's security forces, which are dominated by Hakim loyalists. U.S. and Iraqi officials portrayed the fighting as a showdown between a lawful government and criminal gangs, but the feud dates back before the fall of Saddam Hussein. Sadr's father, a venerated Shiite leader, remained in Iraq through the years of the dictatorship while many of the Hakims (a similarly prestigious line) took refuge in Iran. Ever since, each side has regarded the other as hopelessly compromised—with a touch of class hatred: Sadr has drawn many of his followers from the streets, while the Hakims' organization has attracted more-educated Iraqis. And some Hakim loyalists have always blamed Sadr for the never-solved assassination of Ayatollah Mohamad Baqir al-Hakim in 2003, despite Sadr's repeated protestations of innocence.
The Hakim-Sadr feud was temporarily eclipsed by the apocalyptic struggle between Iraq's Shiite and Sunni hard-liners. But the country quieted down after Sadr declared a unilateral ceasefire last August. (His decision came after a clash with pro-Hakim forces in Karbala.) Since then, intra-Shiite tensions have simmered just below the surface. Now things have blown up, just as Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker prepared to testify before Congress on their progress in Iraq. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki (a former Sadr ally) sent reinforcements to begin taking control of Basra, which is dominated by several Shiite militia groups. The Mahdi Army, feeling itself targeted, fought back, and the violence immediately leaped to Baghdad and other Sadrist centers. The Coalition had to intervene repeatedly with airstrikes on militia positions.
While President George W. Bush called the battle a "bold decision" by Maliki, U.S. officials tell NEWSWEEK it was more improvised than planned. The idea was simply to employ tactics similar to the U.S. surge in Baghdad, pushing additional troops into neighborhood "strong points" in Basra and setting up observation posts and mini-bases as U.S. troops did in Baghdad. After signing off on the plan in mid-March, Maliki decided to travel south with his security cabinet to witness its implementation. But when the militias fought back, he rushed into a major offensive against militias with formidable firepower—some of it allegedly supplied by Iran. "It was impulsive," says a senior U.S. adviser familiar with the operation. "The timing is unfortunate."
It is worse than unfortunate. At the urging of U.S. officials, the Shiite-dominated central government recently passed a law to give provincial governors sweeping powers over security forces and public works. Provincial elections are slated for this year, and competition has already begun, with the Sadrists likely to gain seats. The prize is control of the oil-rich and fertile south. Sadr's followers say Maliki's Basra offensive was nothing but a pre-emptive move to steal the local election from them. U.S. and Iraqi officials deny any such thing. At the weekend, top Sadr aides said they still had not officially abandoned the ceasefire. But at home in Karbala, Abbas worries that the fighting will escalate. "The fighters have to obey the orders of Sayyid Moqtada al-Sadr," he says. "If he says they fight, they have to fight." He and his brother Ahmed can only pray that day won't come.