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Confused about what’s going on in Basra? So is pretty much everyone.

For years, Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army was one of the main destabilizing forces in Iraq. But last summer, he agreed to a cease fire, a move that everyone agrees has done a tremendous amount to diminish the violence in recent months. He renewed the cease fire last month.

But Sadr’s group has splintered. And Shiite militias, some connected to Sadr and some not, have been mixing it up in the southern city of Basra. The British haded over control of the province to the Iraqi government in December, and things have been downhill since then.

For weeks (or months), Iraqi forces (with U.S. encouragement) have planned an offensive to reclaim Basra from these rogue militias. Besides the violence, there’s the problem of corrupt militias having control of the city’s valuable ports. And as the Iraqi general in charge of southern Iraq argued, the militias has to be moved out before the elections this fall, or they might forever take hold.

So the offensive was finally launched this week, with Iraqi forces moving in on the ground with British and U.S. support by air. It came as a surprise to no one, even Sadr’s people, one of whom tells The Los Angeles Times that Sadr has initially agreed to support the crackdown, provided that it targeted ‘outlaws.'”

But now Mahdi representatives say that the offensive is not so “targeted.” And Sadr issued a statement two weeks ago permitting the Mahdi Army to fire on U.S. and Iraqi forces in self-defense. So no matter the talk of “outlaws,” everyone perceives this as a hit against Sadr.

So now it’s chaos, as the operation deepens in Basra and there are clashes in Baghdad — where the Iraqi forces are also attacking “special groups” (as an American official calls them, meaning Shiite militias with Iranian backing) with American support. Shiite insurgents have responded in part by firing rockets into the Green Zone. There’s also a good deal of violence between the rival Shiite militias in Baghdad and elsewhere.

The big question for everyone is whether the cease fire will hold up. Sadr loyalists, the LA Times reports, “accuse his Shiite rivals in the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party of using the Iraqi army and police to round up the cleric’s followers ahead of the elections.”

The Washington Post reports that Sadr ” is under immense pressure from senior loyalists to lift the cease-fire order.” The New York Times gives a vivid sense of how close the situation is to tipping:

Many places in Baghdad were tense. At a checkpoint downtown, a policeman’s radio crackled with the news of the sniper shooting of a police officer in a nearby neighborhood. “We’ve heard that Sadr has canceled the cease-fire, is this true?” he asked motorists whose car he was searching….

Saeed Ammar, a government employee, said he was standing near policemen in the Huriya neighborhood on Tuesday morning when he was approached by Mahdi Army members. “They told me not to stand near checkpoints. They said, ‘We are waiting for the word from Moktada Sadr to attack the checkpoints — it may come at any moment.’ “

So far, though, Sadr has only responded by calling for a nationwide civil disobedience campaign. His statement: “we call on all Iraqis to show restraint, throughout Iraq, as a first step. If the government does not respect the demands of the masses, then the second step will be disobedience in Baghdad and the rest of the provinces.” The cease fire is still in effect.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has gone down to Basra to monitor the campaign and has issued an ultimatum for the militia members to lay down their arms.

As the Post observes it’s an awkward time for the biggest test yet of the preparedness of the Iraqi forces: “It was unclear why U.S. forces would take part in a broad armed challenge to Sadr and his thousands-strong militia on the eve of Petraeus’s assessment, which the Bush administration has said would greatly influence its decision on whether to draw down troop levels.”

And White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, as always, has put the brightest face possible on things: “I would characterize it as a bold decision — precisely what the critics have asked to see in Iraq, more movement by the Iraqi Security Forces.”