As US marines enveloped the restive Sunni Triangle city of Fallujah to respond to the murder and mutilation of four US contractors there last week, a new and potentially more dangerous front was opening in the south - with members of Iraq's Shiite majority.
Sunday, battles broke out in four cities between coalition forces and militias loyal to fiery Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, with the fiercest fighting occuring in Baghdad's Sadr City, home to 2 million Shiites. Seven US soldiers and 30 Iraqis were killed in fighting and more than 100 Iraqis, many civilians, were injured. Fighting also erupted in the southern cities of Najaf, Nasariyah, and Amarah. And Monday, in British-controlled Basra, Sadr supporters seized control of the governor's office.
The incidents in Fallujah were characterized as coming from old-regime supporters fighting a doomed battle to protect their traditional supremacy. But trouble among Shiites - who stand to benefit most from Hussein's removal - would point to a disaffection with US rule so great that the transition plan for Iraq, starting with the June 30 handover of sovereignty to unelected Iraqis, would become untenable.
The minirebellions were sparked by the coalition's closure of Sadr's newspaper, Al-Hawza, late last month, and the arrest of Sadr aide Mustafa Al-Yacoubi by US forces last week, on charges that he aided in the assassination of Ayatollah Abdul Majid Al-Khoei last April. Sadr has demanded the reopening of his paper, the release of Mr. Yacoubi, and prosecution of US soldiers for "crimes" against his people.
Monday, the coalition announced that it was issuing a warrant for Sadr's arrest on charges of having been involved in the murder of a key cleric last year.
It's still too soon to say if this will evolve into a full-fledged Shiite rebellion, something that would throw US plans for Iraq into a tailspin. But the turn of events has left the coalition struggling for a response.
Coalition officials hope that highly respected clerics like Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani will find a way to rein Sadr in. Iraqi radio stations reported Monday that Ayatollah Sistani, who rarely appears in public, was preparing a statement that will call for calm, but also expresses understanding of people's frustrations.
Officials also insist that such incidents are hiccups caused by a bitter few, and that the violence is condemned by most Iraqis.
Sadr "is attempting to establish his authority in the place of the legitimate authority. We will not tolerate this,'' Paul Bremer, the US administrator in Iraq, said Monday. "We will reassert the law and order which the Iraqi people expect."
Still, the violence makes finding out what Iraqis want more difficult. It also overshadowed the arrival of UN Iraq envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who the US hopes will build support for the transition plan.
Sadr's supporters claim he speaks for vast numbers of Iraqis. "We will die for Sadr if we have to, because he wants what all Iraqi people want,'' says Sabah al-Faras, a cab driver and member of the Mahdi Army militia, standing guard at the group's headquarters in Sadr City. He refuses to be pushed around by the US.
"There won't have to be an intifada if the US meets our demands,'' he says. The use of words like intifada, with its echoes of Palestinian resistance to Israel, indicates the danger the coalition could be up against if support for Sadr grows. Iraq also has a homegrown language of resistance stemming from battles against British rule in the early 20th century.
Sadr and his supporters insist the fighting in Najaf and Sadr City was started after youths stoned coalition military vehicles and soldiers opened fire. US officers say their men were fired on first, but many Iraqi newspapers favored Sadr's view in their accounts Monday.
Sadr City was largely peaceful in the early afternoon Monday, with thousands of Sadr supporters controlling the center, many shouting their willingness to die as coffins of those killed were taken in procession to Najaf, the shrine city where most Iraqi Shiites hope to be buried.
But there were signs that the calm could quickly change, with large numbers of tanks and armored Humvees rolling out from US bases.
At the Sadr office, aides handed out fliers with communiqués from Sadr and letters of support from other clerics. One claims to be from "the people of Fallujah" praising Sadr for provoking Sunday's attacks. "We will walk behind Moqtada al-Sadr for what he did to awaken the people," the flier says.
While most analysts say that an alliance between the Sunnis of Fallujah and Sadr's people is impossible, the letter is a signal to Sadr's ambition: to become a vocal point for opposition to the US and its plans for political transition, which have sought to balance the interests of Sunni, Shiite, and Kurds in the north by giving each group an effective veto over an eventual Iraqi constitution.
A year ago, Sadr was a minor figure in the pantheon of Iraq's Shiite clerics, mostly known as the young son of Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, a revered cleric killed in 1999 by men thought to be sent by Hussein.
Iraq's establishment clerics have tended to dismiss him as a hothead. But he's proved to be a savvy politician and positioned himself as the cleric most willing to stand up to the US. Though the extent of his support can still be described as marginal, it is devoted in pockets.
Iraq's Shiite majority were denied political power in Hussein's Iraq and were the victims of periodic and murderous purges, making them wholehearted supporters of his ouster by US-led forces last year.
But they've been uncomfortable with the occupation, and ambivalence has blossomed into anger among many in recent months because of abiding poverty and what they see as machinations by the US and its appointed Iraqi Governing Council to limit their political voices in a new Iraq.
That has left both the coalition and moderate Shiite clerics struggling with how to handle the situation. Members of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which is one of the two largest Shiite political parties and has a seat on the Governing Council, privately say they're reluctant to stand up to Sadr for fear of being seen as too closely allied to US interests. "Sadr says that his people will remain peaceful, and we just have to trust him,'' says one senior SCIRI official.
With the Shiites who have the most public supporters largely silent, that leaves the US to take up the challenge.
But US officials have had to deal with Sadr's willingness to use violence from as early as last April. The best form of publicity for Sadr could in fact be his arrest, which would elevate him to martyr status for many Shiites. The old regime frequently arrested or executed dissident clerics, and Sadr would seek to paint the US-led coalition as Hussein's heirs.
The coalition had hoped quiet pressure from more moderate clerics like Ayatollah Sistani would force Sadr to back down, and that denying him the propaganda victory of an arrest would see his significant but limited support bleed away.
As a result, the US has dealt with him gently, till now. After an ambush by his militia last October in Sadr City that left two US soldiers dead, the US elected not to move on Sadr's group.
One coalition official, who asked not to be named, says the US has had evidence "strong enough to take to court" that Sadr ordered the assassination of Ayatollah Khoei and another cleric in Najaf last April. But rather than prosecute, the US had until now elected to keep the information in its back pocket as a guarantee of good behavior. But it has now decided that a forceful response is required.
Ayatollah Khoei, who as an exile angered Iran's Shiite religious establishment by arguing against the need for clerics to hold political power, had come home with a US marine escort to join in Iraq's political transition, and was seen as a key US ally.
Sadr has repeatedly denied having anything to do with the murder, but his militias have engaged in a number of attempts to seize control of the Shrine of Ali from other clerics.
Last October, his men engaged in gun battles with supporters of Ayatollah Sistani after failing to seize the shrine. Controlling the site, visited by millions of pilgrims a year, would raise Sadr's standing and give him control of the millions of dollars of donations in its coffers, which could in turn be used to buy support.
On Monday, Mahdi Army members encircled the shrine, AFP reported.