BASRA, Iraq — Governance has ground to a halt in this southern oil capital, with Basra’s two largest parties arguing over the legitimacy of the provincial governor while militias and gangs take over the streets.
The bitter power struggle, gaining strength as British forces reduce their numbers and withdraw into their bases, has left grave doubts about what had been one of the most promising regions in post-invasion Iraq.
At the center of the political gridlock lies Gov. Mohammed al-Waili, the local leader of the Fadhila party, which also holds 15 seats in the National Assembly.
In May, the Basra provincial council, which is divided roughly between Fadhila and a rival party — the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) — narrowly voted to remove him.
But Mr. al-Waili has refused to leave, instead appealing to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The prime minister refused at the beginning of the month to overturn the council’s decision but said he did not have the constitutional authority to remove Mr. al-Waili.
Mr. al-Waili remained defiant in an interview, accusing Iran of funding and arming the SIIC.
“I don’t think there is real democracy in Iraq,” he said.
“It is not the first conspiracy I’ve faced against me,” Mr. al-Waili added. “They [can’t remove me] forcibly because we are stronger than they are.”
Driving the dispute is a struggle for control of a $170 million annual reconstruction budget allocated to the province. Mr. al-Waili claims sole oversight over such projects, while his detractors charge that he has embezzled most of the money.
Mr. al-Waili said that “80 to 90 percent” of the planned reconstruction projects for last year had been completed, but declined to show journalists any of them.
Other city residents complain that there is little to show for the spending.
“There is no improvement in public services,” said Nawras Mohamed, an engineer who lives in the city.
The political battle also has national implications. The Fadhila party, which draws most of its support from Basra, emerged in 2003 from the same movement as a larger rival, Tayyera Sadriyyin, the party loyal to militant cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Both parties claim Sheik al-Sadr’s father, a popular Shi’ite resistance leader assassinated by dictator Saddam Hussein in 1999, as their spiritual leader.
Fadhila was the first party to leave the coalition of Shi’ite religious parties that prevailed in national elections in 2005 and has challenged SIIC and Mr. al-Maliki over the country’s proposed oil law, as well as in discussions over how Iraq’s federal government should be structured.
Basra, meanwhile, had grown increasingly dangerous, with Westerners no longer daring to move about without heavy security.
The governor blamed the deteriorating security on Sheik al-Sadr’s party and its affiliated militia, the Mahdi Army. But a spokesman for Tayyera Sadriyyin insisted that the party — which has taken over local services and policing in a program modeled on that of Hezbollah in Lebanon — simply seeks to “focus on the people.”
Basra’s troubles reverberate across Iraq’s nine southern governorates, one of which is controlled by the Sadriyyin. Most of the other governorships are held by SIIC, whose leaders have sought to downplay tensions.
SIIC leader Amar al-Hakim said in a Baghdad interview last month that it would be “a fatal mistake to explain what is happening in the south of the country as a problem between the Supreme Council and other parties. … We at SIIC have great relations with all the other political parties.”
But residents of Basra fear that the factional fighting will only increase after the pullout of British troops, who now take regular casualties from mortar fire, roadside bombings and skirmishes with militias.
“The situation is getting worse,” said Anwar Shubar, one of the Fadhila’s members on the provincial council.