BAGHDAD -- Seven U.S. troops were reported killed yesterday, and a leading Shiite Muslim cleric launched a new round of finger-pointing over who is to blame for recent violence among rival Shiite Muslim factions in Iraq.
Military officials said four Marines died Thursday during combat in Iraq's western Anbar province, which President Bush visited Monday and singled out as region where the U.S. troop buildup this year has slowed the violence.
The three other American deaths occurred Thursday in the province of Nineveh when military vehicles struck explosives, U.S. officials said.
The names of the dead were withheld pending notification of their families. The latest report brings the total number of U.S. military deaths to 3,760 since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, according to icasualties.org, a Web site that tracks troop deaths.
Far more Iraqi civilians and security forces have died in the warfare, and an influential Shiite cleric and member of Iraq's parliament yesterday blamed Shiite rivalries for some of the latest bloodshed that has made political stability here next to impossible.
"The truth is that there is a flaw among us that has sparked the crisis, that has caused the disaster," Sheik Jalahuddin Saghir said during a sermon. "And, yes, the Sunni extremists are gloating over it."
While most violence in Iraq over the years has taken place between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, the number of killings between two major Shiite militia groups has grown in past months.
The bloodshed has hampered efforts to achieve political progress sought by the U.S. during the American troop buildup that began in February. Congressional hearings on the results of the military surge begin Monday.
Last month, 52 people died and 300 were injured during gunfights between Shiite militias in the holy city of Karbala, where a million Shiites had gone on an annual pilgrimage. The violence broke out Aug. 28 between Mahdi Army members loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the Badr Organization, the armed wing of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.
The al-Sadr and Badr groups have battled for control of Iraq's oil-rich south through increasingly bloody rounds of killings and reprisals at a time when British troops have been departing. The Badr group holds the edge in political and military power. But al-Sadr militia members have infiltrated police and Iraqi army units and also control a growing number of Baghdad neighborhoods outside their base in the capital's Sadr City district.
Saghir told worshipers that the Iraqi government must share the blame for the Karbala killings for not having anticipated the violence. Prime Minister Nouri al- Maliki sent 15,000 troops after the fighting started and has since ordered an investigation.
"What happened in Karbala was premeditated and preplanned," said Saghir, a member of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.
Saghir did not name the Sadr organization but clearly targeted his remarks at the rival Shiite group. When asked to clarify during a telephone interview, he said, "I think my words were very clear about what side I was talking about."
A spokesman for al-Sadr said the cleric's accusations "have nothing to do with the Sadr movement and we don't have any reaction to them."
U.S. and Iraqi officials say al-Sadr has lost control of rogue elements within his organization, one example of the fracturing among militant groups that has made political negotiations difficult.
Iraq analyst Joost Hiltermann said Saghir was the first important figure from the leading Shiite political party to say publicly what many have been saying privately.
Sam Enriquez writes for the Los Angeles Times.