Here are answers to key questions about Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's declaration of a state of emergency in the country's second-largest city.
QUESTION: How can al-Maliki disarm militias when they're so politically powerful? Are the security forces strong enough to do that?
ANSWER: It's unclear what al-Maliki can and is willing to do. Iraq's security forces include many members of Shiite Muslim militias, which have been infiltrating the army and the police since at least early last year. In areas such as Basra, the army and police are dominated by Shiites, many of whom also are loyal to the militias. How those units would respond to an order to disarm their own militias is unclear.
Many see Iraq's ability to set up security forces that are free of sectarian agendas as the key to whether the country will continue. If Shiite militias aren't pulled back, many moderate Sunni Muslims may side with the Sunni insurgency as their only protection against the Shiite death squads that operate in and out of the security forces. That could lead to the Balkanization of Iraq along geographic and sectarian lines: western Sunni Arab provinces, southern Shiite provinces and the Kurdish north.
Q. What's Iran's role in the violence in the Basra region?
A. Both the major militias in Basra, the Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization, are receiving arms and money from across the border, but it's not clear to what extent the Iranian government is officially involved. There are also reports of Iraqis going to Iran for military training.
Q. These are tough words from al-Maliki. Will he follow through?
A. It's not clear. His political party doesn't have a militia of its own, but it's part of the United Iraqi Alliance, which includes the parties that are linked to the Badr and Mahdi militias. Going after these two groups would risk seriously weakening his political backing.
(Compiled by Tom Lasseter, who recently completed a 10-day reporting trip to southern Iraq. His report on that trip can be viewed at www.realcities.com/mld/krwashington/14677922.htm)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.