Iraq’s most influential Shi’ite cleric made a sudden return to the country on Wednesday and urged Iraqis to march on the “burning city” of Najaf, where fighting is creeping ever closer to its holiest shrine.
The call from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a moderate who has said little about a crisis that has killed hundreds, could sharply escalate passions among the majority Shi’ite community.
Aides said Sistani arrived in southern city of Basra from Kuwait, having undergone heart treatment in London for three weeks. On Thursday he would head to Najaf, his adopted home.
Sistani’s return came as U.S. and Iraqi forces tightened their grip around Mehdi Army militants loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr holed up in Najaf’s Imam Ali mosque, advancing to within 300 yards of the rebel-held shrine.
Sistani’s aides said the cleric would unveil an initiative to get the militiamen to leave the shrine, but gave no details.
“We ask all believers to volunteer to go with us to Najaf,” Sistani said in a statement read out on his behalf in Basra by his aide Hayder al-Safi. “I have come for the sake of Najaf and I will stay in Najaf until the crisis ends.”
Sistani’s aides said he would leave for Najaf at 7 a.m. on Thursday with his supporters. They urged the militia to leave the mosque and U.S. forces not to interfere.
Sistani, 73, reached Basra from Kuwait in a convoy of more than a dozen vehicles led by police cars with sirens wailing.
His departure for London coincided with the outbreak of the three-week revolt by Sadr, a young cleric who has challenged the collegiate leadership of the Najaf clergy led by Sistani.
The call to march appears to be an attempt by the Iranian-born cleric to reclaim some of the political ground captured during the uprising by Sadr, who has painted himself as the face of anti-U.S. resistance and icon to the poor masses.
Sadr aide Mahmoud al-Soudani told Al Arabiya television the Mehdi militia were prepared for talks to halt the fighting, which has undermined the authority of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and rattled world oil markets.
At least one Iraqi has been killed apparently heeding a top cleric’s call to march to Najaf, where clashes go on between US-led forces and Shia militia.
Aides to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani say thousands are going to Najaf, home to one of Shia Islam’s holiest sites.
Iraqi forces and US troops have sealed off all the streets in the area and are preventing cars from entering the city.
Ayatollah Sistani made his call after arriving back in Iraq having heart surgery in the UK the day after the interim Iraqi government again warned it would end the stand-off around the shrine within hours.
He issued a statement urging “all believers” to follow him to Najaf.
“I have come for the sake of Najaf and I will stay in Najaf until the crisis ends,” the statement said.
Within hours, thousands from Iraq’s majority Shia population were travelling to the city, the ayatollah’s supporters said.
The death was reported in Kufa, a few kilometres north-east of Najaf, where shots were apparently fired at protesters.
The demonstration had departed from a mosque supporting Mr Sadr, witnesses and hospital officials said.