Eight months after he sent in troops to restore calm to blighted Basra, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki is skirmishing with rivals here ahead of elections that will test whether he can convert his military successes into a lasting political victory.
The stakes are high: The winner in the provincial elections, scheduled for Jan. 31, gains control of the country's major oil-producing center and port, its economic lifeline to the world.
But Maliki, who wants Basra under the jurisdiction of Baghdad's central government, faces a dizzying array of rivals, all fellow Shiite Muslims, with very different goals. One party, for instance, wants to break free of the capital and become something akin to a city state; another wants to create a nine-province "super region" that could dwarf Baghdad in power.
The last provincial elections, in 2005, sparked an ugly cycle of assassinations and political violence, in which most political parties were implicated. The next elections could either shatter or bolster the stability established since March, when Maliki ordered the Iraqi army and national police to crack down on armed groups.
"The potential for violence is certainly there," says Norwegian historian Reidar Visser, an expert on the Shiite south.
As the election nears, Maliki is busy maneuvering. He has tapped local leaders to organize tribes in support of the central government. And under Maliki's direction, the national government has funded $100 million worth of reconstruction projects in Basra, bypassing the provincial council. The national government also has started paying unemployment benefits in the province.
"I think Maliki will play a major role in Basra," says parliament member Haidar Abadi, a member of the prime minister's Islamic Dawa Party. "People . . . support and trust the central government more than local authorities."
But other factions also are maneuvering. The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, Maliki's main partner in the national government but also his party's main rival, wants Basra to serve as an anchor of a Shiite-majority nine-state federal region in the south. Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr's followers wish to reclaim their influence in the port city, which they dominated before the springtime military offensive. The Al Fadila al Islamiya party of Gov. Mohammed Waeli wishes to hold on to privileges accrued in the last four years, notably its influence in the oil industry.
One of Maliki's point men in Basra is Abu Hazem Taie, who heads a tribal support council that mobilizes local clans to serve the national government. A white headdress covers his mutilated left ear, which he says was ripped apart by Saddam Hussein's security services during a stint in prison in the 1980s.
His office in this vital port city is decorated with sea motifs, such as shell-shaped lamps and glass fish figurines. From here, Taie directs his efforts to boost Baghdad's influence. His tribal council has hunted suspected Shiite militants and also documented corruption on reconstruction projects. In November, he organized rallies to support Maliki's endorsement of a security agreement with the United States.
"We have discovered the nationalist spirit," he says. "We see a strong man protecting the country, and the people have started to back him."
The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council has its own plans for the south. It wants Basra, with its port and oil, to anchor a nine-province federal region that would be relatively free of Baghdad.
The party, which benefited in the early years of the war, has managed, with its extensive organization and financial resources, to have a major voice in local governance.
The party's leader in Basra, Sayed Furat Shura, projects nothing but confidence. Wearing a dark turban and brown overcoat, he sits on a sofa in his house, where his son wears a baseball cap and female students wait for a lecture on Islam.
Shura speaks about having assembled a list of technocrats to run for office. He sips on his tea and speaks admiringly of the semiautonomous region of Kurdistan as a model of federalism.
"We are not competing with others, they are competing with us," says the man with somber black eyes.
In a spacious orange-colored villa, Sadr supporters gather. They once held sway in the port and streets, but they seem chastened by the March military offensive, in which they took the deepest hit in the city. Even the surroundings are humble. Their office once stood on a main street, but now they work out of a slum, with streaming sewage and torn up earthen mounds. They once expected to dominate Basra's politics; now many of their members are in jail or have fled.
As he munches falafel sandwiches, Sheik Ayid Mayahi, a senior Sadr leader here, sounds contrite, thanking the current security commander in Basra for freeing some of the group's members. Sadr loyalists once spoke of other parties with scorn, but now Mayahi talks of working with them to strengthen the state.
Mayahi does not mention Maliki, but speaks at length about having leaders who will stop the country from being divided.
"We are with our national leaders that call on uniting Iraq and having a central government and national security force to protect Iraq from inside or outside, no matter if it's a political party, Sunni, Shiite, Christian, Arab or Kurd," the sheik says, smoking a Kent cigarette.
The other main player in Basra is the governor's Fadila party. The Shiite religious group, which favors making just Basra a federal region akin to Kurdistan, has long run afoul of Prime Minister Maliki. There has been an uneasy truce since Maliki tried last year to oust the governor, Waeli, who has been accused of involvement in oil smuggling. The supreme court rejected the move. The Iraqi army has not gone after Fadila members the way it has targeted the Sadr movement. This month, Fadila opted to drop Waeli from its candidate list, probably because of his polarizing effect. Members refused to comment on the reasons.
The party advertises itself as a modern Islamist movement, and believes it will pick up more council seats after four years in office. Its secretary-general, Jamal Abdul Zahra, a 33-year-old psychiatrist, accuses Baghdad of trying to sabotage the local government.
Fadila wants Basra to have autonomy, with a guaranteed supply of oil revenue. Already, supporters of his plan have started gathering signatures to put the question to a vote sometime this winter.
"We will have our own ministries and then we will not go to Baghdad," the boyish politician says.
Secular politician Walid Katan, 45, predicts there will be fraud in the vote. "Many parties are counting on cheating," he says. "Without cheating, they can't win."
Katan, who slicks back his hair and wears a blue sport coat with jeans, says that anything could happen in the name of winning. He smiles.
"We are not really democratic yet. All us of have the dictator inside of us."