Freed last year from the grip of militias, Basra has emerged as the main battleground for rival Shiites in elections for control of the oil-rich south — a race that will test the power of religious parties and the influence of neighboring Iran.
The Jan. 31 ballot, in which voters across the country will choose ruling provincial councils, will be the first since U.S.-backed Iraqi forces wrested control of Basra from Shiite militias and criminal gangs.
American officials will be watching the outcome for any sign that the militias might return in Iraq's second largest city of about 2 million people, located only a few miles from the Iranian border.
More than 1,000 candidates have entered the race for Basra's 35 council seats, filling the city's dusty and traffic-choked streets with campaign posters and fliers that give the city a festive look. The outcome will help shape the political future of the southern Shiite heartland ahead of national elections expected by year's end.
Thousands patrol the streets
Basra has been relatively quiet since last year's military crackdown, which ended three years of Shiite militia rule, rampant crime and turmoil. Today, thousands of national police and army soldiers patrol its streets.
At the commercial heart of the city, the soldiers and policemen rub shoulders with the thousands of residents who throng stores until late into the night. With militiamen off the streets, women are out in public again — some unaccompanied by male chaperons and wearing makeup.
Music CDs and DVDs of Western and Egyptian films are back in the stores. Those items were once banned by militias; merchants who defied the gunmen risked death.
The battle for Basra is now being fought politically, with Shiite religious parties more divided than ever following their emergence as Iraq's dominant political force after the ouster of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led regime in 2003.
Chief among the competitors in Basra are the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the country's largest Shiite party and Iran's main ally in Iraq, and Fadhila, a smaller religious group that has controlled local government since the last provincial elections in January 2005.
Also in the mix are followers of radical Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, whose influence in Basra significantly diminished after last year's crackdown. Al-Sadr, who lives in exile in Iran, is supporting two lists of candidates running as independents.
The Dawa Party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is also in the race.
Al-Maliki's popularity soared here after he took on the militias. He is at odds with the Supreme Council over distribution of power between provinces and the central government.
No party expected to win majority of seats
No single party is expected to win a majority of seats. But Fadhila and the Supreme Council, which is allied with al-Maliki in the national government and has been a reliable U.S. ally despite its ties to Iran, are expected to top the winners.
That will likely push them into deals with smaller parties to form a majority.
However, some in Basra predict the two biggest parties will suffer from a voter backlash against religious parties, which many urban Shiites believe have failed to provide public services and jobs.
Still, secular politician Hamed al-Dhalmi believes the religious parties have the money for their candidates to succeed. The Supreme Council can also use its ties to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite cleric, to win votes among Basra's poor Shiites.
"Religious parties are flush with cash, while nonreligious parties hope to take advantage of the popular disillusionment with the religious parties," said al-Dhalmi, a member of Basra's provincial council and a linguistics professor.
"No one knows who will win, but one thing is certain, the political map here will change."
For the parties, the stakes are high.
Province contains oil reserves
Basra and the surrounding province contain 70 percent of Iraq's proven oil reserves of 115 billion barrels. The province also includes the country's only outlet to the sea — the Umm Qasr port on the Persian Gulf.
"We are not ready to give up Basra and we are hopeful it will remain in our hands," said Aqeel al-Fereij, a senior Fadhila member of the outgoing Basra provincial council.
The Supreme Council is equally determined to win control of Basra after four years of Fadhila domination.
"Without wanting to sound too confident or too ambitious, we will not be happy with less than the majority that places us in a decision-making position," said Furat al-Sharaa, a local Supreme Council leader and a candidate.
Basra's proximity to Iran has made the city a focus of Iranian efforts to gain influence in post-Saddam Iraq.
The Supreme Council is pushing for the establishment of a self-ruled area in the south, similar to one the Kurds enjoy in the north. Critics believe such a region would be effectively run by Iran, harden religious divisions and lead to the breakup Iraq.
Basra stores are filled with Iranian goods from vegetables and fruits to electrical appliances, eggs and fresh red meat. Iran's consulate has an unusually high profile in the city, throwing frequent banquets, organizing book fairs at the local university and sponsoring scores of visits by local officials to Iran.
Fadhila is taking advantage of the popular perception of its rival as an Iranian ally to promote itself as a nationalist party free of foreign influence.
"Fadhila, a party that is 100 percent Iraqi," declare its campaign posters. "Born in Iraq and Financed by Iraqis," say others.