Depending on whom you talk to, Moqtada al-Sadr is either a young hot-head or a talented and pious son of one of Iraq's most revered Shiite clerics. But whomever you ask, he's clearly making waves and throwing the US-led coalition's plans for Iraq off kilter.
The radical cleric is also forcing to the surface splits within Iraq's Shiite community, oppressed under Saddam Hussein although representing about 60 percent of the population. By confronting other clerics and demanding more political power from the coalition he has revealed a patchwork of allegiances and grievances that show the Shiites are far from a monolithic political force.
Late Monday evening in Karbala, the site of Shiite Islam's second holiest shrine, members of Mr. Sadr's Mahdi Army militia engaged in a running gun battle with supporters of Sheikh Ali Hussein Sistani in a struggle for control of the shrines to Abbas and Hussein. The tombs of these 7th-century imams are regular pilgrimage sites and their guardians are accorded respect and power among the Shiites.
According the Baghdad-based Iraqi Governing Council, one person was killed in the fighting and 35 were injured.
Mowaffak al-Rubaie, says the situation was so sensitive that he didn't want to discuss who had sparked the clash, or even directly address the factions at all. "This was between two groups trying to control the local muni cipality and the shrines."
"What none of us wants is for major splits to emerge within the Shiite community,'' says Mr. Rubaie. "So the GC is sending a delegation to Najaf and Karbala to reconcile all of the parties and to try to resolve this crisis."
Such mediation would involve dealing with Mr. Sistani, probably the most widely revered living cleric among Iraq's Shiite community. Until now, Sistani has maintained a pious distance from the country's emerging politicians. Though many believe that Sistani disapproves of the young Sadr's confrontational approach, Tuesday's clash was the first sign of open conflict - and perhaps evidence that the young Sadr has gone too far.
Amatzia Baram, a leading historian of Iraq and a senior fellow of the US Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C., says he has followed the rise of Sadr with some unease.
While he doubts that Sadr, whose religious credentials are almost solely confined to the reflected glory of his deceased father, will ever win anywhere close to a majority of Iraq's Shiites to his side, he does command a devoted following among the poor of Sadr City, a poor Shiite area of Baghdad that is home to about 2 million people.
Sadr City was named Saddam City until shortly after the regime fell, and is named after Mohammed Sadiq Sadr, Moqtada's father, who was assassinated by the Hussein regime in 1999. The elder Sadr's portrait is everywhere in town.
"Sadr is a junior clergymen but he's very clever as a politician,'' says Mr. Baram. "He may not be the most popular figure in Iraq, but he has a strong and focused base among the poor of Sadr city. That's why he's so dangerous - he has a lot of potential footsoldiers."
Sistani represents the majority of Iraq's Shiites. A cautious figure, he is so respected that many believe he can not only repair internal divisions within the Shiite community, but also heal some of the country's larger sectarian and ethnic divisions.
"Sistani is a quietist,'' says Dr. Baram. "He could buy the Americans another year, just like that, if he opened his mouth and said it would be chaos if they go. But his approach is to not get too involved."
It is too soon to tell what the fallout of the incident in Karbala will be. For instance, Sadr's men may have acted on their own initiative. Security in both Karbala and Iraq's other major shrine city, Najaf, have been left in the hands of local figures out of respect to the religion.
But tension has often been high in both cities, particularly since a car bomb killed a leading cleric and 85 followers outside the shrine of Ali in Najaf.
There have been frequent scuffles between pilgrims and security guards.
Analysts say all this could make Sadr a more marginal figure, that in turn could make his supporters, with less to lose, more dangerous.
The shootout in Karbala was the latest in a string of incidents involving Sadr and his Mahdi Army.
Last Friday, he declared his own government and denounced the US-appointed Iraq Governing Council. On Thursday, his men fought with US soldiers in Sadr City.
Representatives for the 2nd Armored Calvary said a patrol in the area was lured into an ambush and had to fight its way out past a gantlet of as many as 500 armed men. Two Iraqis and two US soldiers were killed.
On Tuesday Sadr had helped lead the physical expulsion of the US-appointed district council for Sadr City from its building. He and a number of other leaders in the district are seeking to replace the council with representatives they see as more legitimate. US military officials rejected his demands, heightening tension in the area.
Maj. Aaron Marler, a political officer with US forces in Sadr City, describes Sadr as a marginal figure who is standing in the way of the eventual transfer of authority to Iraqis. "He is simply not participating in the political process here,'' says Major Marler. "This is something he is free to do, and we encourage him. But what we don't deal with is threats and demands.
Until now, Sadr has benefited from the belief of many of his followers that the differences between him and Sistani are simply ones of style, not of substance.
"All of the marjas [Shiite religious scholars] are of one mind,'' says Abbas al-Rubaie, editor of a newspaper that Sadr partially controls. "Sistani is of course very important, but Moqtada al-Sadr is easily recognizable as the most important current Shiite leader."
One of the principal differences between Shiite and Sunni Islam, which split in the 7th century in a dispute over who should lead the religion, is the importance of the clergy to the Shiite.
While Sunnis have a very loose and nonhierarchical organization, Shiites believe strongly that religious scholars are needed to help interpret the will of God in the modern context with religious rulings, or fatwa.
These scholars, the marja, are far from a monolithic group themselves, with different views on everything from the role of Islam in the state to the appropriate punishments for crimes. Every Shiite is, more or less, the follower of one marja, so the most popular marjas like Sistani have an enormous amount of de facto political power at their fingers, if they chose to use it.