Violence in Baghdad claimed the lives of more than 20 people on Wednesday as fighting between Iraqi troops and Shia militias threatened to undermine efforts by Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shia cleric, to contain the conflict.
The clashes occurred in Sadr city, a Baghdad slum, as the capital was placed under a vehicle curfew to mark the fifth anniversary of the fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein.
Iraqi leaders are trying to contain the fallout from a failed government offensive against militias in Basra in which members of the Madhi army, a militia loyal to Mr Sadr, outfought Iraqi forces.
General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, this week told the US Congress that the Basra offensive, which sparked the recent violence in Baghdad, was poorly planned. He said Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister, had ignored his military advice.
George W. Bush, US president, is on Thursday expected to endorse the recommendation by Gen Petraeus this week that the Pentagon should pause troop reductions this summer after the departure of the five combat brigades that made up the US military “surge”.
Ike Skelton, the Democratic chairman of the armed services committee, on Wednesday told Gen Petraeus at another congressional hearing that the conflict in Iraq was taking resources away from Afghanistan and other potential conflicts.
“When looking at the needs in Afghanistan, the effort in Iraq, however important, is putting at risk our ability to decisively defeat those most likely to attack us,” said Mr Skelton. “Iraq is also preventing us from effectively preparing for the next conflict.”
Meanwhile, the US military said on Wednesday that an unmanned drone had fired a Hellfire missile at gunmen attacking Iraqi forces and troops of the US-led coalition in the region of Sadr City, killing two.
Such incidents have been frequent in the week since Mr Maliki called off his “Charge of the Knights” offensive in Basra that was aimed at disarming “lawless” gunmen.
Mr Sadr initially co-operated with the government by calling his followers off the streets, but the aftermath appears to have placed him in an awkward position.
He is caught between a militant core of his movement that appears anxious to respond to what it considers government provocations and a general public which seems weary of the proliferation of armed groups.
He seems determined to transform his militia from a fairly loose coalition into a more disciplined political organisation, but appearing too conciliatory would risk losing his already strained authority over his more radical followers.
Officials in Baghdad say Mr Sadr might be outside Iraq, probably in Iran, which would make him cautious about judging trends within his movement and within Iraqi internal politics.
Whatever the cause, Mr Sadr’s statements since the end of the offensive have contained notes of both militancy and pliancy.
Mr Maliki, on the other hand, has been surprisingly confident for a leader who presided over a military operation widely viewed as a fiasco, and he has kept up the political pressure on Mr Sadr even as he called off military operations.
In a recent interview, Mr Maliki suggested that the Sadrists would be banned from taking part in elections unless the Mahdi Army was disbanded.
Additional reporting by agencies