Ailing ayatollah steps in to bloody Najaf conflict

Senior Iraq cleric returns, calls for march on city to quell weeks of fighting

August 26, 2004|By Evan Osnos | Evan Osnos,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraq's paramount Shiite cleric unexpectedly returned to Iraq yesterday and thrust himself into the bloody standoff in Najaf, calling for a nationwide march on the holy city in a bid to quell three weeks of fighting between U.S. forces and Shiite rebels.

The call for peace from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani -- whose words have sent thousands into the streets in the past -- could be a pivotal turn in the showdown between rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the U.S.-backed Iraqi government.

It raises hopes among some Iraqis of a breakthrough, but it also sets the stage for a huge and potentially volatile human surge into a city swarming with U.S. troops and Iraqi militants.

Meanwhile, a mortar attack today on the main mosque in Kufa, just northeast of Najaf, killed 25 people and wounded 60 others, hospital officials and witnesses said.

Thousands were crowded around the mosque at the time. Hussam al-Husseini, an aide to al-Sadr, said one mortar shell hit the mosque itself and two others hit near the mosque gates. It was unclear who fired the mortar.

Al-Sistani, 73, who left Iraq Aug. 6 for heart surgery in London, arrived in southern Iraq, crossing from Kuwait. He returns at a moment of soaring tension: U.S. troops took control of virtually the entire center of war-scarred Najaf yesterday, closing in around the shrine where al-Sadr's rebels have holed up with civilian supporters in the hope that U.S. forces will not assault the holy site.

Iraqi government leaders added to already dire warnings that a final clash could be imminent unless al-Sadr backs down.

"The Mahdi Army is finished," said Najaf's police chief, Maj. Gen. Ghalib al-Jazaari. "Its hours are numbered."

Al-Sadr hasn't been seen in days; amid rumors that he has fled the city, insurgents have been seen departing Najaf too.

It's not immediately clear how each side might seek to capitalize on al-Sistani's intervention. The ayatollah did not immediately express support for either side or signal how he hopes to settle the conflict.

In earlier battles between al-Sadr and authorities, al-Sistani has applied blame equally to both sides, condemning the use of U.S. firepower in the holy city, while his representatives criticize al-Sadr for attacking American forces and fueling bloodshed.

Without addressing the details, al-Sadr's militants swiftly endorsed al-Sistani's intervention, calling for a cease-fire in every region of the country he passes through on his way from the southern border to his home city, Najaf.

Al-Sadr responded to al-Sistani's call with a command of his own, urging his followers throughout Iraq to join in the journey to Najaf, adding to a potential migration of thousands, if supporters turn out in numbers comparable to previous Shiite demonstrations.

By nightfall, some al-Sistani supporters had already packed into cars and set off for Najaf and Kufa. Others in Baghdad said they were preparing to make the trip.

"I'm ready to go to Najaf with my friends in my own car. ... Somebody should save the shrine," said Ahmed Jassim Mohammed, 27, a photographer in the capital's Sadr City neighborhood. "The Imam Ali shrine is not just a building to us. I reject the presence of the gunmen inside the shrine. Both sides should respect the holiness of the shrine."

The current conflict dates to Aug. 5, when a firefight escalated between U.S. Marines and al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. Al-Sadr, a black-turbaned young preacher popular among unemployed and disaffected youth, took to the shrine with supporters and demanded that U.S. troops leave the city. He has pledged to hand over keys to the shrine to al-Sistani.

The prospect of large-scale demonstrations emerged when Hamed al-Khafaf, an al-Sistani aide, told the Arab satellite news channel Al-Arabiya yesterday that the aging cleric "will lead thousands of followers on a march to holy Najaf."

In January, al-Sistani sparked protests of thousands of Shiites calling for free elections. It remains unclear when he intends to enter the city with his followers.

Momentum has built in recent days against al-Sadr's forces. U.S. commanders told reporters in Najaf of killing hundreds of militants earlier this week in fights in the narrow, tangled dirt tracks of the city.

Smoke billowed over the squat, drab buildings of the Old City in yesterday's television images, as machine-gun and mortar fire filled the air.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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