NAJAF, Iraq - Ending a homecoming tour through southern Iraq, a leading Shiite Muslim arrived yesterday in his native town, Najaf, where he was greeted by a crowd of several thousand people eager to know what role he intends to play now that Saddam Hussein is gone.
After 23 years in exile in Iran, Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr Hakim told the crowd that the new Iraq should be Islamic and democratic. Islam "achieves independence for us," he said, adding that the future of Iraq must be built around free elections.
Hakim's homecoming was a major event in Najaf, where people passed out tea and sticky sweets in the streets in honor of his return. When loudspeakers announced the arrival of the ayatollah's convoy, children ran forward to catch a glimpse of the man whose picture adorned posters all over town.
"We're here to see if Hakim is a man of politics or whether he is a man of religion," said Abu Muntazer, a fabric merchant in the street near where Hakim spoke.
Hakim made Najaf the last stop on his trip through the Shiite-dominated south.
Azadeh Moaveni is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.