The leader of Iraq's biggest Shiite militia has quietly resumed seminary studies toward attaining the title of ayatollah - a goal that could make firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army an even more formidable power broker in Iraq.
Al-Sadr's objectives - described to The Associated Press by close aides - are part of increasingly bitter Shiite-on-Shiite battles for control of Iraq's southern oil fields, the lucrative pilgrim trade to Shiite holy cities and the nation's strategic Persian Gulf outlet.
The endgame among Iraq's majority Shiites also means long-term influence over Iraqi political and financial affairs as the Pentagon and its allies look to scale down their military presence in the coming year.
Al-Sadr's backers remain key players in the showdowns across the region, where fears of even more bloodshed are rising following Wednesday's triple car bombing in one of the area's main urban hubs. At least 25 people were killed and scores wounded.
Al-Sadr - who was last seen publicly in May - is confronting the most serious challenges to his influence, which includes sway over a bloc in parliament and a militia force that numbers as many as 60,000 by some estimates.
Becoming an ayatollah - a revered status among Shiite Muslims - would give the 33-year-old al-Sadr an important new voice and aura.
It also would give him fresh clout to challenge his top rival, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, which looks to Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as its highest religious authority and has its own armed wing, the Badr Brigade, which have been largely absorbed into Iraqi security forces.
Al-Sadr often stresses his Iraqi and Arab roots and rejects suggestions that he is beholden to Persian Iran, the world's Shiite heavyweight and the benefactor of many Shiite politicians.
As an ayatollah, his views and fatwas, or religious edicts, would resonate with even more authority as the battles heat up for sway over Iraq's Shiite heartland.
Comparisons are often drawn between al-Sadr's strategy - a mix of militia strength, well-tuned street politics and social outreach - and the hallmarks of Hezbollah, which has been influenced by Lebanon's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, as well Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of Iran's 1979 Islam Revolution.
"If ... Muqtada becomes a religious authority, the entire movement will grow stronger," said one of the aides who described al-Sadr's seminary studies to the AP.
The al-Sadr associates - three in all - spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to share the information with the media. Their accounts, made in separate interviews, were in broad agreement.
In other developments: An American soldier was shot to death in an attack in southern Baghdad, the military said Friday. The U.S. statement said the name of the Multi-National Division-Baghdad soldier, who died Thursday, was being withheld until family could be notified. At least 3,890 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count. The FBI is investigating the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, Justice Department officials said, following allegations of misconduct from former employees. The investigation of Stuart Bowen involves possible electronic tampering, including alleged efforts by the inspector general to go through e-mails of employees in his office, two officials close to the inquiry said Thursday. It is being handled by the FBI's Washington field office, according to law enforcement officials, who like the first officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation. Defense attorneys for a former soldier accused of raping a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and killing her and her family asked Thursday for more time to prepare an adequate defense. Citing a possible insanity defense and a need to visit the crime scene in Iraq, Steven D. Green's attorneys argued during a hearing and in a motion filed Thursday, for more time to interview witnesses and investigate Green's psychiatric background. Attorneys asked for a trial date no earlier than April 2009 "to insure that both the United States and the defense can be adequately prepared" for the trial, according to the motion. A Marine reservist was found guilty Thursday of killing an Iraqi soldier while they stood watch together at a guard post in Fallujah. Lance Cpl. Delano Holmes, 22, of Indianapolis, was convicted of negligent homicide, but acquitted of the greater charge of unpremeditated homicide. He was also convicted of making a false official statement. A man convicted of spying for Saddam Hussein's former regime and sharing information with the executed Iraqi dictator's intelligence service was sentenced to 18 months in prison, federal prosecutors said. Ghazi Al-Awadi, 78, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Iraq, pleaded guilty in July to acting as an agent of the government of Iraq under Saddam's regime. He was sentenced on Thursday.
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