NAJAF, Iraq - The son of an assassinated prominent cleric openly claimed the leadership of Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority Friday, in a fresh display of the power struggle between three powerful groups based in this holy city.
"The coalition forces have no legal authority. I am the spokesman for the Shiite people. Only I have the legal right to direct them," Muqtada al-Sadr told worshippers in his Friday prayer sermon.
"Some religious schools have opened their doors without our permission. Only we have the right to decide when they should open," he added, speaking at Najaf's al-Kufa mosque.
He also stated that "no one should buy or sell looted goods" and that "thieves should be found and punished."
Muqtada al-Sadr, 30, is the sole surviving son of Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, who was assassinated here in Najaf in 1999 in a killing blamed on the Baghdad regime.
Sadr's group is one of three main Shiite factions competing for power in Najaf, the clerical heart of Shiism and site of the shrine of Imam Ali, a nephew of the prophet who Shiites believe was his rightful successor.
Earlier this week Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer al-Hakim returned to Najaf after a 23-year exile in neighbouring Iran. His Iranian-aided Supreme Assembly for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SAIRI) has recently set up shop in the city, backed up by members of its armed wing, the Badr Brigade.
The third main faction is Al-Dawa, a hardline group that built up an extensive network of militant cells in Iraq under the Saddam regime.
Despite claiming leadership of the Shiites -- who make up around 60 percent of Iraq's population -- Muqtada al-Sadr did issue an appeal for unity.
"We are all Muslims and brothers because we have the same God, the same message and the same home. Our unity is our strength. Unity is not just a word. We must make it a practical reality," he said.
"All the reasons behind the discrimination between us have been removed. Now it is our chance to show people all over the world how Muslims can live together."