Iraq’s top Shiite cleric returns home as fighting rages in Najaf |

Iraq’s top Shiite cleric returns home as fighting rages in Najaf

Associated Press Writer
Shiite Muslims hoist a picture of Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani, 73, outside of the place where he is resting, after he crossed into southern Iraq from Kuwait about midday in a convoy of vehicles accompanied by Iraqi police and national guardsmen in to the southern city of Basra, Iraq Wednesday Aug. 25, 2004. Al-Sistani has been in London for medical treatment since Aug. 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 stabilizing the crisis. (AP Photo/Nabil al Jurani)

NAJAF, Iraq (AP) – Iraq’s most powerful Shiite cleric returned to the country from Britain on Wednesday and his aides called for a nationwide march to Najaf to end nearly three weeks of fierce fighting between U.S. forces and Shiite militants in this holy city.

The announcement came as heavy fighting persisted in Najaf’s Old City. U.S. warplanes fired on the neighborhood, helicopters flew overhead and heavy gunfire was heard in the streets, witnesses said.

Iraqi police sealed the area, preventing cars from entering, and Najaf’s police chief, Maj. Gen. Ghalib al-Jazaari, said radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia was on its last legs.

“The Mahdi Army is finished,” he said. “Its hours are numbered.”

Witnesses in Najaf’s Old City said relentless American attacks appeared to be weakening the resistance of al-Sadr’s loyalists.

The police chief said his officers arrested several al-Sadr aides Wednesday who were carrying valuables from the sacred Imam Ali Shrine, which the Mahdi Army controls. One of al-Sadr’s top lieutenants, Sheik Ali Smeisim, was among those arrested, police officials said on condition of anonymity.

Another al-Sadr aide, Aws al-Khafaji, said Mahdi Army fighters would honor the return of Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani to Iraq by briefly suspending fighting with coalition and Iraqi government forces in every area the religious leader passes through on his way to his home in Najaf.

Al-Sistani, 73, went to London for heart treatment on Aug. 6, one day after fighting erupted in Najaf. The cleric wields enormous influence among Iraq’s Shiite majority and his return could play a crucial role in stabilizing the crisis in Najaf.

He crossed into southern Iraq from Kuwait about midday in a caravan of sport utility vehicles accompanied by Iraqi police and national guardsmen, according to an Associated Press reporter with the convoy. The convoy stopped in the southern city of Basra, about 280 miles from Najaf.

After meeting with al-Sistani, Basra Gov. Hassan al-Rashid told reporters the cleric planned to start off on a march to Najaf on Thursday. “The masses will gather at the outskirts of Najaf and they will not enter the city until all armed men, except the Iraqi policemen, withdraw from the city,” he said.

Al-Sistani is going to Najaf “to stop the bloodshed,” said Al-Sayyid Murtadha Al-Kashmiri, an al-Sistani representative in London. “Those believers who wish to join him, let them join,” he said.

In Shiite areas across Iraq, appeals rang from mosque loudspeakers urging Iraqis to heed al-Sistani’s call. In the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City, people piled into cars and buses and headed for Najaf.

Al-Jazaari, the police chief, cautioned Iraqis not to come to Najaf, “because their enemies could cause them a disaster and they could put their lives in danger.”

In separate violence, U.S. warplanes and tanks attacked for more than two hours in the city of Fallujah, where Sunni Muslims insurgents are entrenched. The fighting killed at least four people and wounded four, hospital officials and residents said.

Marine spokesman Lt. Col. Thomas V. Johnson said Wednesday that several insurgent firing positions “have been struck this morning with tank-fire and, yes, aircraft were also used against the targets.”

In Najaf, U.S. and Iraqi forces in recent days tightened a cordon around the Old City and the neighboring Imam Ali Shrine, the holiest Shia site in Iraq. Police distributed leaflets Wednesday telling residents they had to make a choice between rebuilding the country and watching it flourish or continuing with fighting and watching its economy collapse.

Iraqi forces, accompanying U.S. troops into the Old City on Tuesday for the first time in recent days, moved to within 200 yards of the shrine compound.

Both the Iraqi government and the U.S. military say no military moves are being made without the approval of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan, addressing Iraqi National Guard troops in Najaf, said Tuesday that Iraqi forces would head toward the shrine “tonight” to await the signal for a raid or the capitulation of the militants. But by Wednesday, there was no indication Iraqi forces had advanced on the religious site.

Shaalan made a similar threat a week ago, but the government later said it would work for a peaceful solution.

Any raid on the shrine would risk angering Shiites across Iraq against the fledgling interim government, which is also battling a persistent and bloody Sunni insurgency.

Al-Sadr’s militia, which once waged fierce battles with U.S. troops throughout the Old City and Najaf’s vast cemetery, seemed considerably diminished in number and less aggressive after days of U.S. airstrikes and heavy artillery pounding.

Hundreds of insurgents were seen leaving Najaf in recent days, residents said.

Police drove through town claiming that al-Sadr, who has not been seen in public for days, also had fled the city. His aides vigorously denied that, saying the cleric was in a hideout in Najaf.

In the southern city of Amarah on Tuesday, clashes between British troops and al-Sadr militants killed 12 people and injured 22, said Dr. Sa’ad Mahmoud at al-Zahrawi of Zahrawi General Hospital. The fighting started when militants attacked a British foot patrol with small arms and fired mortar rounds at a building housing British troops, residents said.

Two mortar rounds hit the Polish Embassy in Baghdad on Wednesday, but caused no casualties, a Polish television station reported.

A Polish Foreign Ministry spokesman in Warsaw, Jaroslaw Drozd, told AP that “there was an explosion” at the embassy and that Polish officials were trying to confirm details of the TVN24 report.

Lebanese Foreign Ministry officials said Wednesday that Lebanese hostage Mohammed Raad, who was kidnapped Aug. 2, had been freed by his Iraqi captors and was in the Lebanese Embassy in Baghdad.

Masked militants had promised to release him in a video shown Tuesday on the al-Arabiya satellite channel, saying they were responding to an appeal by The Association of Muslim Scholars, an influential Sunni Muslim group in Iraq that’s believed to have links to insurgents.