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August 25, 2004

Sistani to Lead March to Reclaim Najaf?!?!

If this happens, it's huge, I think.

NAJAF, Iraq β€” Iraq's most powerful Shiite cleric was returning home from Britain today in a bid to end nearly three weeks of fighting in Najaf and called on his followers to join him in a march to reclaim the holy city, his spokesmen said.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani, 73, 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 nearly three-week-old 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 in an e-mail sent to The Associated Press in Beirut.

The announcement came as U.S. and Iraqi forces in Najaf tightened a cordon around the Old City and the neighbouring Imam Ali Shrine, the holiest Shia site in Iraq. U.S. forces shelled militants loyal to rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in the Old City on Wednesday and smoke rose into the sky after U.S. warplanes pummeled the area overnight.


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 a radical cleric surrender or face a violent raid.

The militant force, 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 Tuesday after days of U.S. air strikes and heavy artillery pounding.

Hundreds of insurgents have been spotted leaving Najaf in recent days, witnesses said. Those that remained appeared to have pulled back to the area around the shrine, where the fighting Tuesday was concentrated, U.S. troops said.

Police say al-Sadr, who has not been seen in public for days, has fled the city.

Go effin' figure on that, huh?

His aides, however, vigorously denied that, saying al-Sadr was in a secret hideout here. Regardless, the fiery, charismatic cleric's absence from the battlefield may have withered his followers' morale.

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.

digg this
posted by Ace at 03:44 PM

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