BAGHDAD - The leader of Iraq's biggest Shiite militia movement has quietly resumed seminary studies aimed at 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.

Sadr's objectives - described 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 United States looks to scale down its military presence in Iraq during 2008.

Sadr's backers remain main players in the showdowns across the region, where fears of even more bloodshed are rising since Wednesday's triple car bombing in the southern city of Amarah.

While the death toll initially was put at 42, authorities yesterday lowered it to 28, the Los Angeles Times reported. About 180 were wounded.

But Sadr - last seen publicly in May - also 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 - one of the highest Shiite clerical titles - would give Sadr, 33, an important new voice and aura.

It also would give him more clout to challenge his top rival among Shiites, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, which looks to Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as its top religious authority. The council, too, has an armed wing, the Badr Brigade.

As an ayatollah, Sadr's views and

fatwas

, or religious edicts, would resonate with even more authority.

Comparisons often are drawn between Sadr's strategy - a mix of militia strength, well-tuned street politics and social outreach - and the hallmarks of the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah.

"If . . . Muqtada becomes a religious authority, the entire movement will grow stronger," one of Sadr's aides said.

Three Sadr associates spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to share information with the media. Their accounts, made in separate interviews, were in broad agreement.

Sadr has the relatively low title of hojat al-Islam, which leaves his supporters no choice but to seek religious guidance from top establishment clerics, many of whom Sadr sees as out of touch with common Iraqis and accuses of acquiescing to Washington.

The aides said Sadr was on a path to achieve ayatollah rank, possibly by 2010. His studies are under the supervision of senior clerics in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, where the Mahdi Army fought grinding battles with U.S. forces in 2004.

In 2000, Sadr enrolled in "outside research" - the rough equivalent of a doctoral program. Afghan-born Grand Ayatollah Ahmed Issaq al-Fayadh, one of Najaf's four top clerics, supervised him when he joined, but Sadr's attendance has been spotty since 2003.

Successful candidates qualify for the rank of ayatollah. But it also is necessary to have a family pedigree in Islamic scholarship and a following among seminary students and laymen.

Sadr should have no problem. His father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, is the namesake for the teeming Shiite district in Baghdad known as Sadr City - called Saddam City before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Saddam Hussein's agents killed Sadr's father and two brothers in 1999.

Significantly, the aides said, the main focus of Sadr's studies has been the Shiite doctrine known in Arabic as

vilayet al-faqeeh,

which supports the right of clerical rule. The concept was adopted by Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini but carries little support among Iraq's Shiite religious hierarchy.

Sadr is believed to travel frequently between Iran and Najaf. His whereabouts are never revealed by aides, and he rarely gives media interviews.

Bombing Kills 4 in Kurdish City

Four people were killed

and 12 were wounded yesterday in a coordinated bombing in the mostly Kurdish city of Khanaqin, about 90 miles northeast

of Baghdad near the

Iranian border.

Police said

the initial explosion was minor and caused no casualties. But

as onlookers gathered, a second blast ripped through the crowd.

In Baghdad, a car bomb

exploded yesterday about 200 yards from the Italian Embassy, killing one Iraqi and injuring six, including three policemen. It was not immediately clear whether the embassy was the intended target.

Amarah, a Shiite city

south of Baghdad, remained under a dusk-to-dawn curfew yesterday after three car bombs ripped through its main market Wednesday. While officials lowered the death toll yesterday, the bombings - the first major attack there - left a trail of mourners all over the city.

Authorities

, who immediately after the blasts had said 42 people were killed, cited confusion and lowered the toll to 28. At least 180 people were wounded, the local health department said.

- Los Angeles Times