At the request of local elders, Lt Col Ben Edwards, commander of British troops in the south-eastern Iraqi province of Maysan, decided not to order patrols in the days leading up to today’s national elections so that his soldiers would not be seen as trying to influence the result.

But on Wednesday, Lt Col Edwards made an exception.

One of the candidates from the party of Iyad Alawi, the former Iraqi prime minister who heads a secular group challenging the incumbent religious coalition, had been assassinated in the provincial capital of Amarah two weeks ago, and the candidate’s tribe was threatening to disrupt voting in his hometown of Kumayt.

So just after dawn, a platoon of 19 soldiers led by Lt Will Hunt, a lanky 26-year-old from Cricklade, England, flew to the small village of 2,500 in a hulking Merlin helicopter to see if they could fix things.

As it turned out, little fixing was needed. The town’s police chief had just reached an agreement with the aggrieved family. “We made a contract with the tribe so they don’t make any problems and don’t prevent the elections,” said Major Abdul Muodim. “They will be voting.”

In this case, trouble appears to have been averted. But the incident is emblematic of the increasing power in Iraq’s Shia-dominated south of Islamist militia, particularly the Mehdi Army, a loosely-organised gang giving allegiance to Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shia cleric who has joined the governing party’s coalition.

A two-hour walk through Kumayt, which sits astride the Tigris in the northern part of the province, reveals dozens of posters of Mr Sadr and his father, a respected cleric killed by Saddam Hussein a decade ago, and none for any other party. When British troops pass the local offices of Mr Sadr’s organisation, they are met with glares.

Senior British officers emphasise they do not know for sure who killed the Alawi candidate, a secularist who was shot in a car in broad daylight. But they said the influence of the Mehdi Army and its concomitant ability to intimidate locals has increased markedly in the last month. Indeed, Lt Col Edwards said he was concerned that through fear and thuggery, Mr Sadr’s militia might come to dominate this part of Iraq.

“One of our greatest threats is they’re able to do that before democracy sets in,” he said. To illustrate the point, Lt Col Edwards points to Amarah’s main hospital, where the secular director of the facility has been threatened and bullied by Mehdi militia in an attempt to force him out.

Locals are worried that, as under Mr Hussein’s regime, non-Sadrists may be forced to join the cleric’s movement just to hold office. “It’s a creeping disease akin to Ba’athism,” said Capt Rupert Gorman, the battlegroup’s intelligence officer.

The British are not the only ones who have noticed Mr Sadr’s growing power. The region’s other militia, the so-called Badr Brigade – the armed group affiliated with the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), an Islamist party that is part of the governing coalition – has begun to fight back, and in August the two groups engaged in open warfare.

“Very helpfully, they attacked each other,” sighed Lt Col Edwards. “Gave us a bit of a rest.”

Although the insurgency in the Sunni heartland of central Iraq, widely characterised as a Sunni versus Shia conflict, continues to be the country’s biggest trouble spot, coalition officials throughout the south say the internecine rivalry between the two Shia groups – universally termed “Badr vs Sadr” – has become so pronounced that it has come to shape local politics and society.

The differences between the groups are less ideological than political and personality driven. Sadrists accuse Badr militia of ties to Iran, where SCIRI worked in exile during Mr Hussein’s regime, even as Mr Sadr and his father remained inside Iraq struggling against the Ba’athists.

And while Badr has been increasingly integrated to the local government – the widely respected police force in Amarah, for example, is made up mostly of current or former Badr militiamen – the Mehdi Army draws from disaffected youth in urban centres and is believed to be behind most of the anti-coalition attacks in the region.

The divisions between Badr and Sadr have also raised questions about how easy it will be for British and other European troops to withdraw from southern Iraq over the next year, as many political leaders have hoped. British officers said one of their main missions has become to serve as a buffer and a balance between the factions.

So concerned are British officials that Lt Col Edwards said his training team had opened discussions with the local Iraqi military division about transferring to another part of the country so a different unit could be brought in.

Only soldiers without ties to the local community, the reasoning goes, could avoid being drawn into the Badr-Sadr conflict.

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