Divisions within the US leadership in Baghdad are hampering negotiations to end the stand-off between the radical cleric Muqtada Sadr and the 2,500 American troops who are surrounding him.
Sadr, who has taken refuge with his black-clad militiamen in the holy city of Najaf in southern Iraq, has dropped all conditions for talks with the US. Previously he demanded that US soldiers leave Najaf, free his followers who had been arrested and end the siege of Fallujah.
"It is very difficult to know who is taking the decisions on the American side," said Hussain al-Shahristani, an influential Shia figure, in an interview with The Independent. "You hear one thing from [Paul] Bremer [the chief US civilian official] and another thing from the US army."
Earlier in the week negotiators persuaded Sadr to order his Army of the Mehdi militiamen to withdraw from police stations in Najaf, only to hear a few hours later the US army announce its intention to kill or capture the young clergyman. Foreign diplomats, Coalition Provisional Authority officials and Iraqi politicians also say that Mr Bremer, though it was he who first sought a confrontation with Sadr by closing his newspaper, has very little influence on decisions taken by the US military.
The US Marines have undertaken to subdue Fallujah, west of Baghdad, apparently without regard for civilian casualties. Doctors in the local hospital estimate these to total more than 600 dead and 1,200 wounded, many of them women and children. Iraqi politicians believe that Mr Bremer knows the siege is provoking a backlash against the occupation, but cannot restrain the US military.
"There will be a massacre if the Americans go into Najaf," declared Dr Shahristani. He pointed out that the office of Sadr is close to the holy shrine of Imam Ali, sacred to 130 million Shias, which would certainly be damaged in the fighting. If Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the revered religious leader of the Iraqi Shia, strongly condemns an American incursion then Shia leaders believe that there will be an uprising all over Iraq.
Earlier Sadr said: "I fear only God. I am ready to sacrifice my blood for this country. I call on the Iraqi people not to let my killing put an end to their rejection of the [American] occupation."
Dr Shahristani, imprisoned for many years by Saddam Hussein until he escaped during the 1991 Shia uprising, said there was less likelihood of fighting in Kerbala, where Sadr's forces are weaker. But in Najaf his militiamen control the shrine of Imam Ali, with its golden dome, in the centre of the city.
He estimated that "some 15 per cent of Iraqi Shias support Sadr and the same proportion dislike him intensely. The majority do not accept his methods but they think that he has been unfairly treated by the US when they closed his newspaper and arrested or shot at his supporters".
Sadr appears eager to defuse the crisis. He has asked the supreme Shia authority in Iraq, the Marjaiya, to negotiate terms with members of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. An Iranian foreign ministry delegation has arrived in Baghdad to help resolve the crisis.
The seriousness of the situation facing the Americans in Iraq was underlined yesterday when US forces said that they had lost 87 soldiers killed and 560 wounded in the past two weeks. The total far exceeds the number of US casualties in the first two weeks of the war last year.
The US army commanders, going by their statements, appear to have little understanding of the political cost of their actions this month. General Richard Myers, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said yesterday in Kuwait that "Sadr's recent activities have further marginalised him and he is in a very weak position".
Many Shia observers disagree, saying that the American pursuit of Sadr, who was previously seen as a maverick, has gained him the reputation of a martyr among the Shia and he is much more popular than he was before.