By Ray Sanchez
Iraq’s most respected Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, made a dramatic return to the country Wednesday and urged all Iraqi Muslims to join him on a march to the southern city of Najaf and end the rebellion by Shia militia loyal to rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Iraqis by the thousands appeared to heed the call, boarding cars and buses throughout the night. They headed to Najaf in convoys to join what he said would be a march to the besieged shrine of Imam Ali, one of the most sacred sites in Islam. The shrine has been the scene of fierce battles between al-Sadr’s followers and a combined force of U.S. and Iraqi troops for the past three weeks.
There was no sign that al-Sistani or his followers had coordinated their moves with U.S. forces, raising the possibility of a confrontation between his supporters, the U.S. and Iraqi security forces and al-Sadr’s militiamen. His aides called for U.S. forces to withdraw from the holy city immediately.
Al-Sistani had left Iraq for heart surgery in London on Aug. 6, the day after al-Sadr, a major rival, launched his rebellion. Arab television showed al-Sistani crossing into southern Iraq from Kuwait Wednesday in a caravan of SUVs protected by Iraqi police and national guardsmen.
“We ask all believers to volunteer to go with us to Najaf,” al-Sistani said in statement read by an aide in Basra. “I have come for the sake of Najaf, and I will stay until the crisis ends.” It seemed unlikely that U.S. and Iraqi troops would withdraw from the shrine, which they surrounded and cordoned off. A U.S. AC-130 gunship strafed positions near the shrine late Wednesday, witnesses said.
American troops have done most of the heavy fighting in the heart of Najaf’s Old City, but the interim Iraqi government has insisted that only Iraqi forces will enter the shrine, the most sacred site for the country’s majority Shia population.
The unrelenting assaults, including nightly air attacks, appeared to have weakened the resistance of al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia. Today (August 25), Maj. Gen. Ghalib al-Jazaari, Najaf’s police chief, was the latest in a series of Iraqi officials to predict its demise. “The Mahdi Army is finished,” he said. “Its hours are finished.”
The fighting has risked sharpening Shia opposition to the U.S. presence in the country, especially if it results in damage to the Imam Ali Mosque. Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi issued a statement welcoming al-Sistani back “on behalf of all Iraqis” but did not say whether he thought the cleric could play any role in ending the three-week conflict. Aides to al-Sadr said militants would cease fighting in areas al-Sistani passed on his way to Najaf for this morning’s march. U.S. military officials said the Iraqi government would decide how to respond to the cleric’s visit.
Al-Sadr’s followers have also been called to march on Najaf Thursday, setting the stage for possible clashes amid rival demonstrations. In Kufa, northeast of Najaf, gunmen killed two people and wounded five others in what appeared to be a peaceful demonstration by al-Sadr supporters last night. Witnesses said the marchers, in the hundreds, apparently came under fire from an Iraqi National Guard post. Later, three mortar rounds, apparently intended for a police checkpoint, hit a civilian area in Kufa, killing two people, including an 8-year-old boy, and wounding four others.
A militant group, meanwhile, said it had kidnapped the brother-in-law of Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan and demanded an end to military operations in Najaf, according to Al-Jazeera television. Militants calling themselves the “Divine Wrath Brigade” claimed in a video to have kidnapped Maj. Gen. Salah Hassan Lami, military affairs director at the Defense Ministry.
Al-Sistani met Wednesday with Basra’s governor, Hassan al-Rashid, who read the cleric’s statement. “The masses will gather at the outskirts of Najaf and they will not enter the city until all armed men, except the Iraqi national policemen, withdraw from the city,” it said. An al-Sistani representative in London said the cleric was returning to Najaf “to stop the bloodshed.”
In mixed Shia and Sunni areas throughout Iraq, mosque loudspeakers urged Iraqis to join the march to Najaf. Abdel Hadi al-Daraji, an al-Sadr spokesman in Baghdad, told Al-Arabiya television: “I call upon all my Sunni brothers and also our brothers in all of Iraq’s provinces to immediately head to Najaf to protect the shrine.”
Hundreds of insurgents have been seen leaving Najaf in recent days, witnesses said. Iraqi officials have said that al-Sadr, who has not been seen publicly for days, has fled the city, although the cleric’s aides have denied that.
Iraqi police officials said several senior al-Sadr aides, including Sheik Ali Smeisim, were arrested in Najaf Wednesday carrying valuables from the shrine.
Al-Sadr aides in Baghdad said the charges were part of a smear campaign.
Meanwhile, U.S. warplanes and tanks attacked the restive city of Fallujah for more than two hours Wednesday, killing at least four people, hospital officials said. Fighting in Baghdad’s Sadr City slum also killed one Iraqi and wounded another.
A U.S. soldier was killed when a truck overturned on a bridge near Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad, a military spokesman said. By August 24, 962 U.S. service members had died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq in March 2003, according to the U.S. Defense Department.
—Associated Press, August 25, 2004