A feud between radical cleric Moqtada Sadr and Iraq's Shiite religious and political establishment shot to the fore Saturday, threatening to spark fighting among the country's majority population.
A spokesman for one of Iraq's main Shiite parties castigated Sadr's Mehdi Army militia for being led by former loyalists of ousted president Saddam Hussein and "terrorists."
He also accused Sadr of plunging Iraq's Shiite population into a "futile war" with the US-led coalition, when anti-occupation resistance could be accomplished by "peaceful means".
"The leadership of the Mehdi Army has been infiltrated by Baathists and terrorists and we have a list of their names," Sheikh Qassem al-Hashimi, of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), told reporters.
"This group planned the assassination attempt against Sayed (honorific) Saddredin al-Kubbanji yesterday and it is the same group that killed Sayed Mohammed Baqer al-Hakim and Sayed Abdul Majid al-Khoei."
Kubbanji, the Najaf-based representative of SCIRI, escaped an attempt on his life unscathed after he finished giving Friday's weekly sermon at the Imam Ali shrine in the holy city.
Hashim said Kubbanji has been receiving death threats for the past two months, which is how long Najaf has been held at the mercy of the militia.
Hakim, a founder of SCIRI and its former leader, was killed in a massive car bomb attack at the shrine in August after Khoei, a moderate and prominent cleric, was stabbed to death near the shrine in April 2003.
SCIRI is now led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a member of the US-appointed Governing Council.
Sadr, who is holed up in Najaf under the protection of his militia, is wanted by the coalition in connection with Khoei's murder.
"Both the Mehdi Army and the Sadr movement are plagued by chaos and lack of leadership and many of its members have nothing but utter disrespect for the Marjayia (religious authority)," said Hashimi.
He called on Sadr's militia to leave Najaf "as soon as possible", as demanded two weeks ago by the office of the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most reverred figure in Iraq's Shiite religious authority.
Kubbanji, who is also a follower of Sistani, has called on the militia several times to leave the holy city thereby "removing any excuse for US troops to invade Najaf."
"Failure by the Mehdi Army to disband and leave Najaf will lead to terrible consequences both for its members and the city," warned Hashimi.
"You (militiamen) will have no one to blame but yourselves and we will not come to your aid if the Americans kill you one by one."
Sadr delivered his most outspoken criticism to date Friday of the Shiite religious authority and Sistani in a sermon read on his behalf in nearby Kufa.
He accused the senior leaders of keeping quiet as "crimes were being committed by the occupation against the Iraqi people and their sanctities."
"When are you going to speak up?" said the text of the sermon.
Sadr offered a truce Thursday to stop weeks of bloody fighting between his militiamen and US troops in Najaf in an effort to negotiate a deal with the coalition on the fate of his militia and the Khoei murder charge.
His ability or willingness to enforce the truce was in question Saturday as fresh clashes in Kufa killed at least four and wounded 22 Iraqis.
Sadr, whose supporters are mostly young men from the capital and southern Iraq, had so far snubbed all mediation efforts by moderate Shiites to end his standoff with the coalition.
The uprising erupted in early April following the suspension of one his newspapers and the arrest of a deputy.
The 30-something cleric says he represents the "activist branch of the religious authority" in contrast to the line pursued by Sistani and his followers, and has vowed to die a "martyr" in his fight against the occupation.
Sistani's home and that of another senior leader Bashir al-Najafi were recently attacked by gunfire.
There have also been skirmishes between the Mehdi Army and members of SCIRI's armed wing, the Badr Organisation, but all sides swept the incidents under the carpet, blaming them on those "who want to incite infighting among Shiites".
Sadr's sermon on Friday and SCIRI's statement on Saturday appear to signal that the radical and moderate camps may be headed for a collision.