Muslim leader awaits heart surgery as battle in Iraqi city escalates

Cleric acted as mediator between militia, coalition

August 13, 2004|By Matthew McAllester | Matthew McAllester,NEWSDAY

LONDON - As U.S. soldiers and Shiite militiamen fight a battle for Najaf that includes major dangers for the American occupation of Iraq, the man most able to calm the fighting is hospitalized in London for a heart operation scheduled today.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, 73, is to undergo an angioplasty to widen blood vessels to his heart, aides said.

Sistani flew to London last Friday and has spent the week being looked after by a team of British doctors, who might have more than the health of just one elderly man on their hands. As leader of the Shiite Muslims in Iraq and around the world, Sistani is perhaps the most powerful person in Iraq and has enormous influence over Iraq's majority Shiite population.

In his absence from Najaf, a city sacred to Shiites, militia loyal to the young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have fought battles with American soldiers, none more furious than yesterday's. The battle risks sharpening Shiite opposition to the United States' presence in the country, especially if it results in damage to the Imam Ali Mosque, a shrine sacred to Shiites.

Friends and aides said yesterday that they are so worried about the impact of the fighting in Najaf on Sistani's health that they have tried to keep bad news from him. "It is affecting him," said a Shiite leader in London, Ghanim Jawad.

Sistani's absence from Najaf has deprived both sides in the battle of their most influential mediator. In past conflicts between al-Sadr's Mahdi Army and coalition forces, Sistani has used his influence to calm the situation.

Sistani's office said yesterday that he was "following the plight of his people in Iraq from his hospital bed with deep pain and grave concern. He shares the pain and anguish of his people."

Jawad, who is a senior official at a Shiite charity, the Al-Khoei Foundation, said Sistani's duties are being taken care of by his son, Mohammed Ruba, who is also in London.

Sistani has undergone tests on his heart and arteries, aides said. In addition to the constricted blood vessels, he suffers from an irregularity in his heart, they said, although they did not offer more specifics.

In London, Sistani has rented an apartment in the luxurious Mayfair district, although most of his time has been spent in exclusive hospitals frequented by wealthy Arabs in North and West London, Jawad and other Shiite leaders said.

One aide dismissed rumors that Sistani had left Najaf on a pretext to allow American forces to capture or kill al-Sadr, whom Sistani apparently considers an extremist and a threat to Iraq's stability.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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