Top cleric in bid to end Najaf fighting25/08/2004 - 10:17:48
Iraq’s most powerful Shiite cleric was expected to return home from Britain today in a bid to end nearly three weeks of fierce fighting between US forces and Shiite militants in the holy city of Najaf.
Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani, 73, has been in London for medical treatment since August 6, one day after clashes erupted in Najaf. The cleric wields enormous influence among Shiite Iraqis and his return could play a crucial role in stabilising the crisis.
“His eminence Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani will arrive in beloved Iraq in a few hours and he will return to the holy city of Najaf to rescue it from its ordeal,” Hamed al-Khafaf said.
The announcement came as US and Iraqi forces in Najaf tightened a cordon around the Old City and the neighbouring Imam Ali Shrine, the holiest Shia site in Iraq.
US forces shelled militants loyal to rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in the Old City and smoke rose into the sky after US warplanes pummelled the area overnight.
In separate violence west of Baghdad, US warplanes and tanks bombed the volatile city of Fallujah for more than two hours, killing at least four people.
Based in the city are Sunni insurgents the government believes are responsible for months of kidnappings, bombings and shooting attacks against coalition troops, Iraqi forces and civilians across Iraq.
The relentless American bombing in Najaf appeared to be weakening as Iraqi troops moved to within 200 yards of the revered Imam Ali Shrine and Iraq’s defence minister once again demanded fighters loyal to al-Sadr surrender or face a violent raid.
Hundreds of insurgents have been spotted leaving Najaf in recent days.
Police say al-Sadr, who has not been seen in public for days, has fled the city.
His aides, however, vigorously denied that, saying al-Sadr was in a secret hideout there.
Regardless, the fiery, charismatic cleric’s absence from the battlefield may have withered his followers’ morale.
Al-Sayyid Murtadha Al-Kashmiri, an al-Sistani representative in London, said al-Sistani was headed back to Najaf “to stop the bloodshed”.
Al-Khafaf told the Arab satellite television station Al-Arabiya that al-Sistani “will lead thousands of followers on a march to holy Najaf”.
“We call upon all devout Iraqis who follow him” from all over the country to be “on alert to head to holy Najaf under his leadership”, al-Khafaf told the station. He said an announcement on the next steps will be made later.
Al-Sistani underwent an angioplasty, a procedure to unblock a coronary artery, on August 13 in London. Al-Kashmiri said the senior cleric was in good health and left the hospital three or four days ago.
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