BAGHDAD — A little-known ayatollah has emerged at the center of a violent conflict among Shiite Muslims that is sweeping Iraq's southern desert.
Mahmoud Hassani, whose gunmen fought a competing Shiite faction in the holy city of Karbala this week, is a renegade in the mold of Muqtada Sadr. He has criticized the largest Shiite party for being too closely aligned with Iran, and his green-clad militia has attacked Americans as well as fellow Shiites.
The battle for control among Shiites is another destabilizing development in a country already mired in insurgency, escalating the sectarian bloodshed and human rights abuses by security forces.
On Thursday, the U.S. military announced the death of two American troops, one killed by a roadside bomb while patrolling Baghdad on foot and one killed Wednesday in western Al Anbar province.
A roadside bomb also killed four people and injured 28 near a market in the heavily Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City in Baghdad. In Baqubah, north of the capital, gunmen attacked a police building, killing two officers and a child, and a curfew was imposed.
Though Baghdad remains the center of the violence, assassinations and street fights between militias now also take place regularly in the majority-Shiite south. Iraqi security forces, which are dominated by rival Shiite groups, and gunmen affiliated with Hassani battled in Karbala for three hours Tuesday. An Iraqi army official said two soldiers, two police officers and three gunmen were killed.
Security forces surrounded the city, imposed a curfew and arrested hundreds of Hassani followers, Iraqi authorities said.
Followers reached a truce with the local governor and police Thursday that calls for "Hassani [to] disavow those stirring seditions and those targeting the government's officials and properties."
"It is so clear that this was a conspiracy against us aimed at destroying [Hassani] and his followers," said Dhiaud Musawi, a Hassani aide in Karbala.
He accused local authorities of placing explosives near Hassani's office but said Iran was ultimately behind the attacks.
Hassani, who is believed to be about 40, claims to be a descendant of the prophet Muhammad. He is one of the few Shiites who have publicly criticized Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a moderate voice and the most revered and influential Shiite cleric in Iraq. Although his stronghold is in the south, Hassani also has followers in Sadr City.
Iraqis, unhappy because they are locked out of the local patronage system, are increasingly turning to more militant fringe parties such as Hassani's, said professor Juan Cole, an expert on Shiite Islam at the University of Michigan. "He's a symptom of how politics are working in the south," he said. "This is pushback from people who feel disenfranchised."
Fighting has broken out between other Shiite groups as well. On Wednesday, a Shiite tribe in Basra stormed a local government office and fought Sadr's followers for several hours. At least three people died, hospital officials said.
Local authorities said the situation was tense but under control there. The two most powerful Shiite militias, Sadr's Al Mahdi army and the Badr Brigade -- affiliated with the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq political party -- have been fighting in Basra for months. A third group, the Thar Allah Party, recently joined the fight, residents say.
Compared with Sadr, Hassani's power is marginal. But Iraqi officials appear worried about his ability to command popular support.
In the early days after the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Sadr and Hassani followed similar trajectories. Hassani claimed to have studied under Sadr's father, the revered Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq Sadr, who was assassinated in 1999, allegedly by agents working for Saddam Hussein. But authorities at seminaries in Karbala and Najaf, another holy city, have little recollection of him.
Like Sadr, Hassani employed anti-American rhetoric after the invasion. His virulence alienated other Shiites who initially praised Americans as their liberators.
Both Hassani and the younger Sadr sought control of Karbala and its shrines, which generate millions of dollars from pilgrims' contributions. Imam Hussein, grandson of Muhammad, was martyred in Karbala about 1,300 years ago.
Both men also encouraged their followers to fight the Americans.
In October 2003, Hassani's bodyguards killed three American MPs, including a battalion commander, in a ferocious firefight outside his office near the gold-domed Imam Abbas shrine in Karbala. The Americans and the interim Iraqi government put a $50,000 price on his head, and Hassani disappeared.
While Hassani remained underground, Sadr battled Americans in Najaf during 2004. But instead of disappearing, Sadr reinvented himself as a politician.
Today, Sadr's faction controls 30 seats in parliament and key ministries, including Health and Transportation, which give it control of vital infrastructure.
American commanders express frustration that Sadr and his followers have become almost untouchable.
When U.S. troops raided a suspected kidnapping and torture cell in Sadr City last week, calling in airstrikes for support, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki lashed out at the Americans, calling the operation "excessive."
Times staff writers Raheem Salman, Suhail Ahmad and Saif Hameed in Baghdad, Saad Fakhrildeen in Najaf and a special correspondent in Basra contributed to this report.