Wed 25 August, 2004 14:00
By Michael Georgy
NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraq's most influential Shi'ite cleric has made a sudden return to the country 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 metres 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 t o 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. (4 a.m. British time) 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 ha lt the fighting, which has undermined the authority of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and rattled world oil markets.
"We are ready to respond to any call from Sayed Sistani or anyone else to stop the bloodshed," he said.
Sadr also called for his own followers to march on Najaf.
In the heart of Najaf's old city, U.S. tanks fired shells and troops advanced closer to the mosque as U.S. helicopters strafed militia targets. Gunfire rocked the area and smoke rose.
Asked if the U.S. military would suspend operations following Sistani's return, U.S. Rear Admiral Greg Slavonic said: "The Iraqi leadership is leading this effort ... We will follow whatever course of action the Iraqi leadership decides."
U.S. Army 1st Lieutenant Michael Throckmortan, speaking not far from the mosque, said U.S. and Iraqi forces were trying to isolate the militia before an attack.
"What we are trying to do is shape the battlefield to create the big picture. We are trying to do everything that will give us the advantage," Throckmortan told Reuters.
Iraqi Defence Minister Hazim al-Shalaan had warned the Mehdi fighters they would be wiped out if they did not leave the mosque by Tuesday evening. U.S. and Iraqi officials have said only Iraqi forces would storm the mosque.
Asked about reports some militia had fled the shrine, Throckmortan said: "I've seen no evidence they are leaving."
Some 500 Iraqi troops have been deployed to the area around the shrine.
In an interview broadcast on the BBC earlier on Wednesday, one of Sistani's aides in London called on Sadr's militia to leave the shrine and added U.S. troops should not be involved in bringing the fighting to an end.
Sayed Mohamed Musawi said the situation could be solved only by the Iraqi government alone.
"Americans interfering in this will not help the situation at all," he said. "We always say that the Americans should be very far from the holy places. They should not involve themselves in this problem."
Some 2,000 U.S. marines backed by aircraft have done most of the fighting, pounding rebels whose main weapons are AK-47 assault rifles, rocket propelled grenades and mortars. But any raid by U.S. troops on the shrine could trigger mass protests.
Elsewhere, Poland's embassy in Baghdad was struck by two mortars but no one was wounded, a government source in Warsaw said. Poland has 2,500 troops in Iraq.
U.S. aircraft also attacked targets in the staunchly Sunni Iraqi city of Falluja early on Wednesday, killing three people and wounding four others, a hospital official said.