The militia headed by the radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr yesterday took over the southern Iraqi city of Amarah, recently vacated by British forces, after a day of heavy fighting which left dozens killed, almost 100 injured and widespread damage to buildings.
In what is being seen as a symbolic flexing of muscle, heavily armed Mahdi Army fighters in black uniforms stormed and took over the three main police stations and flattened them with explosives.
British troops were put on standby to move back into Amarah last night as Mr Sadr's militia battles the rival Shia Badr Brigade for the control of the south and its lucrative oil fields.
Amid conflicting reports about who exactly was controlling the capital of Maysan province two companies of the Iraqi army with British "advisers" were despatched from Basra. The Iraqi Prime Minister, Nour al-Maliki, sent a high-powered delegation from Baghdad to seek talks with Mr Sadr's representatives.
In a string of towns in western Iraq, Sunni fighters held "victory parades".
The US authorities have effectively admitted they have lost the battle for Baghdad despite pouring in 12,000 troops. Major-General William Caldwell said the operation, called Together Forward, "has not met our overall expectations in sustaining a reduction in the level of violence".
More than 100 people were killed in Balad, an hour's drive north of Baghdad, in two days of sectarian violence after the town had been handed over to Iraqi forces.
The Amarah confrontation is especially worrying for Britain because it threatens to jeopardise the exit strategy under which forces have been withdrawn from a several areas with maintenance of security handed over to Iraqi forces. The threat of violence has increased with plans to devolve the country into a federal structure, a move bitterly opposed by Mr Sadr.
Defence sources say this fear of being "sucked back in" was one reasons behind the decision by General Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the Army, to speak out about disengagement from Iraq last week.
The fighting in Amarah began after Qassim al-Tamimi, the head of police intelligence for Maysan and a member of the Badr Brigade was killed by a roadside bomb. The brigade, said to have strong links with Iran, retaliated by kidnapping the brother of Sheikh Fadel al-Bahadli, the Mahdi Army commander in the province and demanding the handover of al-Tamimi's killers.
Mohammed al-Alaskari, an official with the Iraqi defence ministry, said: "All the parties have started a truce but the situation remains very tense and we have dispatched two companies from Basra."
Dr Zamil Shia, director of Amarah's department of health, said 22 civilians, three of them children, have been killed in the clashes. He said his staff were able to cope for the time being, but may need more supplies if the fighting continues.Reuse content