A surge in violence in Basra has raised the prospect of British troops having to go back into the city if the security situation deteriorates further.
Yesterday, a suicide bomber killed three people and injured 20 others in the city in the latest sign of violence resurfacing in the Shia south after a comparatively quiet period.
Two senior aides of Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the spiritual head of the Shia, were killed in the region last week in a series of targeted assassinations that had also seen the deaths of two provincial governors and a police chief in recent months.
General Jalil Khalaf, of Basra police, said after yesterday's blast: "The target was police headquarters and more people could have died. We do not know yet who is responsible".
Southern Iraq, with its lucrative oil wealth, has been the scene of bloody internecine fighting between the Mehdi Army, led by the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the Badr Brigade and the Fadhila party. British forces, who withdrew from their last remaining base in Basra City earlier this month, remain officially in charge of security in the area and UK commanders have said that they are ready to step back in if necessary with a battlegroup, the Royal Welsh with Challenger tanks, on standby for such an eventuality.
The Iraqi commander who has taken over from the British in Basra, General Mohan al-Furayji, had brokered a peace deal between the various Shia factions but, according to sources in the militia, there is rising tension between the groups. The American military in Baghdad, meanwhile, has repeatedly claimed that Iranians are shipping large quantities of weapons into the south. The killing of the two Sistani aides raised the number of Grand Ayatollah's advisers killed to five in three months. Amjad al-Janabi was shot dead as he left a mosque in Basra and Ahmad al-Baraqawi was shot as he drove home in Diwaniya. A Shia politician in Basra said: "I think we know who is ordering these killings. It is a very powerful and well known man, but we are too afraid to say the name in public."
Meanwhile, a reconciliation gathering between Sunni and Shia leaders and the US military at a mosque in Baquba turned into a scene of carnage after a suicide bomber blew himself up, killing 28 people including the police chief, senior commanders and sheikhs from a number of prominent tribes.
The attack, during a ceremonial meal, is the latest in a series of lethal blows against American attempts to mobilise local groups against al-Qa'ida in Iraq and its large contingent of foreign fighters. Those attending the meeting included Shia militia, Mehdi Army and the Sunni groups the Islamic Army and the 1920 Revolution Brigade, which had until recently been involved in fighting against American forces.
The deaths at Baquba brought the numbers killed to 45 in less than 24 hours including the Basra bombing, six killed in a double car bombing in Baghdad and six more in a truck bombing in Tal Afar. A total of 92 people were also injured in the various bombings and shooting around the country.
The US military confirmed yesterday that American officers had attended the reconciliation meeting at Baquba, the capital of the volatile Diyala region. It was the second attack this month by insurgents against America's new allies. On 13 September Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, the Sunni tribal leader fighting al-Qa'ida in Anbar, and lauded by George Bush during a visit to Iraq, was killed by a bomb near his home in Ramadi.
The blast at Baquba took place at Ifthar, the breaking of fast during Ramadan, on Monday evening. Among the dead were Haji Najim, a former leader of the 1920 Revolution Brigade, named after resistance against British invaders at the time, who had been instrumental in the group agreeing to a truce with US forces, and Brigadier General Ali Delyian al-Jorani, the chief of Baquba police. The governor of Diyala, Raad Rashid Mulla Jawad, was among those injured while his brother, who was also his bodyguard, was killed.
Diyala province is of strategic significance in the Iraqi conflict as it is a route through which Sunni insurgents slip into Baghdad.