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<>MER - Mid-East Realities - www.MiddleEast.Org - Washington - 25 August 2004:
There are crucial moments, and persons, in history. Gandhi in India, Mandela in South Africa, Martin Luther King in the United States -- each had earned a power of personality, principles, and credibility that at the crucial moment in time came together to change the history of their country and of the world. In the more ancient history of the Middle East there were of course such figures as Saladin, Christ, Mohammed.

Not all such powerful historic figures succeed -- some are not truly deserving, others face overwhelming counter-power. Yasser Arafat has terribly mislead his own people -- not because he didn't conform to the demands of the United States, but rather because he squandered his historic moments along with such unprecedented amounts of international support and resources. Geranamo failed to appreciated the true dimensions of the White Man's advance and in the end found himself and his people in chains. For many American Blacks there is the more recent powerful figure of Malcolm X. There was Che in Latin America. And for many Muslims, however hard for Westerners to understand, there is today Osama.

Now on this very day in history there is another Ayatollah in and at the heart of the Middle East at a crucial moment in time. The very term 'Ayatollah' was hardly known in the West before the Iranian revolution just 25 years ago now. But in the immediate days ahead it now appears Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is to have his and maybe modern on-its-knees Iraq's 'rendevous with history'. And then what this is really all about now is the future rather than the past, especially with Iraqi 'elections' supposed to take place just 5 months from now. What will the American Empire with its arsenal of planes, tanks, and shock troops now do to deter, deflect, or stop him? What will the U.S.-installed and protected Allawi regime in Baghdad now do to attempt to co-opt or twist him?

Al-Sistani returns to Iraq

The country's top Shia cleric has urged people to march on Najaf

Iraq's most influential Shia cleric, Grand Ayat Allah Ali al-Sistani, is in the southern city of Basra and will head to Najaf soon to try to resolve the crisis there, an aide says.

Al-Sistani's return comes as US and Iraqi forces tightened their siege of Najaf's Imam Ali mosque, where supporters of Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr are holed up.

"He has entered Iraq through Basra. He will head to Najaf tomorrow," Hamid al-Khafaf, an al-Sistani aide based in London, said on Wednesday.

Al-Khafaf called on Iraqis "to be ready to march on the city of Najaf under the leadership of al-Sistani to save the city."

Iraq's most senior Shia Muslim figure, Iranian-born al-Sistani has returned from Britain where he had been treated for a heart condition. Al-Khafaf told Aljazeera that the Ayat Allah had overidden doctors' recommendations not to travel.

Initiative welcomed

Aides of al-Sadr, whose al-Mahdi Army militiamen have resisted attempts by US-led forces to expel them from the revered Imam Ali mosque complex, told Aljazeera they welcomed al-Sistani's proposal to lead marchers to Najaf.

Al-Sadr 's supporters have been
besieged for three weeks

"People welcome the return of his eminence Ayat Allah Ali al-Sistani and now men, women and children, in groups and individually, are heading to the city of Najaf to lift the siege imposed by the US occupation forces," said
Aws al-Khafaji, an al-Sadr's spokesman from the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriya.

Asked about demands by al-Sistani's aides for Mahdi Army fighters to leave the shrine, al-Khafaji blamed besieging US-led forces for preventing a peaceful withdrawl.

"We repeatedly call on a peaceful solution but ... no one can leave the shrine as US snipers have taken up positions on the roofs of the neighboring buildings while the shells are falling here and there," said al-Khafaji.

"It is better that the fighting ceases so all those conducting their sit-in can leave safely".

'Silent' claim rejected

Al-Khafaf rejected charges that the Iranian-born al-Sistani, who has urged his compatriots not to take up arms against occupation forces, had been curiously silent over the situation in Najaf.

"It is absolutely incorrect. Despite his serious illness, his eminence and the team accompanying him were following the situation in Iraq.

"He has not spared any efforts to end the crisis peacefully. He has proceeded with contacts there that were not reported in the media."

Al-Sistani's propposed march is likely to put al-Sadr's movement under further pressure to withdraw from the mosque, whose occupation by al-Mahdi Army militiamen has directly challenged the authority of US-backed interim Prime Minister Iyyad Allawi.

Top Cleric Looks to Broker Deal in Najaf

NAJAF, Iraq (AP - 25 August) - Iraq's most powerful Shiite cleric returned to the country from Britain on Wednesday and his aides called for a nationwide march to Najaf to end nearly three weeks of fierce fighting between U.S. forces and Shiite militants in this holy city.

The announcement came as heavy fighting persisted in Najaf's Old City. U.S. warplanes fired on the neighborhood, helicopters flew overhead and heavy gunfire was heard in the streets, witnesses said.

Iraqi police sealed the area, preventing cars from entering, and Najaf's police chief, Maj. Gen. Ghalib al-Jazaari, said radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia was on its last legs.

``The Mahdi Army is finished,'' he said. ``Its hours are numbered.''

Militants were still fighting in the streets of the Old City, witnesses said, though the relentless American attacks in Najaf appeared to be weakening them.

Police on Wednesday arrested several al-Sadr aides with valuables in their possession from the sacred Imam Ali Shrine, which they control, al-Jazaari said. One of al-Sadr's top lieutenants, Sheik Ali Smeisim, was among those arrested, police officials said on condition of anonymity.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani, 73, the nation's top Shiite cleric, crossed into southern Iraq from Kuwait about midday in a caravan of sport utility vehicles accompanied by Iraqi police and national guardsmen, according to an Associated Press reporter with the convoy. The convoy stopped in the southern city of Basra.

Al-Sistani had been in London for medical treatment since Aug. 6, one day after clashes erupted in Najaf. The cleric wields enormous influence among Shiite Iraqis and his return could play a crucial role in stabilizing the crisis.

Al-Sistani would head to Najaf on Thursday ``to stop the bloodshed,'' said Al-Sayyid Murtadha Al-Kashmiri, an al-Sistani representative in London. ``Those believers who wish to join him, let them join.''

The police chief cautioned Iraqis not to come to Najaf, saying they should await instructions from al-Sistani, ``because their enemies could cause them a disaster and they could put their lives in danger.''

In separate violence west of Baghdad, U.S. warplanes and tanks bombed the volatile city of Fallujah for more than two hours, killing at least four people and wounding four others, hospital officials and residents said.

Sunni insurgents based in the city are believed to be responsible for months of kidnappings, bombings and shooting attacks against coalition troops, Iraqi forces and civilians.

Marine spokesman Lt. Col. Thomas V. Johnson said Wednesday that several insurgent ``firing positions ... have been struck this morning with tank-fire and yes, aircraft were also used against the targets.''

Hours later, witnesses heard sporadic fighting in northern and eastern Fallujah.

In recent days, U.S. and Iraqi forces in Najaf tightened a cordon around the Old City and the neighboring Imam Ali Shrine, the holiest Shia site in Iraq. U.S. forces shelled militants loyal to al-Sadr in the Old City on Wednesday and smoke rose into the sky after U.S. warplanes pummeled the area overnight.

Iraqi forces, accompanying U.S. troops into the Old City Tuesday for the first time in recent days, moved to within 200 yards of the Imam Ali Shrine. Both the Iraqi government and the U.S. military say no military moves are being made without the approval of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

The militant force, which once waged fierce battles with U.S. troops throughout the Old City and Najaf's vast cemetery, seemed considerably diminished in number and less aggressive Tuesday after days of U.S. airstrikes and heavy artillery pounding.

Hundreds of insurgents have been spotted leaving Najaf in recent days, witnesses said. Those that remained appeared to have pulled back to the area around the shrine, where the fighting Tuesday was concentrated, U.S. troops said.

Police say al-Sadr, who has not been seen in public for days, has fled the city.

His aides, however, vigorously denied that, saying al-Sadr was in a secret hideout here. Regardless, the fiery, charismatic cleric's absence from the battlefield may have withered his followers' morale.

Hamed al-Khafaf, an al-Sistani aide, told the Arab satellite television station Al-Arabiya that al-Sistani ``will lead thousands of followers on a march to holy Najaf.''

``We call upon all devout Iraqis who follow him'' from all over the country to be ``on alert to head to holy Najaf under his leadership,'' al-Khafaf told the station. He said an announcement on the next steps will be made later.

Abdel Hadi al-Daraji, an al-Sadr spokesman in Baghdad, also called all Muslims to march on Najaf.

``I call on all my Sunni brothers and also our brothers in all of Iraq's provinces to immediately head to Najaf and to protect the shrine,'' he told Al-Arabiya television.

Al-Sistani underwent an angioplasty, a procedure to unblock a coronary artery, Aug. 13 in London. Al-Kashmiri told the AP the senior cleric ``is in good health and left the hospital three or four days ago.''

Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan, addressing Iraqi National Guard troops in Najaf, said Tuesday that Iraqi forces would head toward the shrine ``tonight'' to await the signal for a raid or the capitulation of the militants, but by Wednesday, there was no indication Iraqi forces had advanced on the religious site.

Shaalan made a similar threat a week ago, saying the government could raid the shrine to free it of ``its vile occupation.'' The government later backed down and said it would work for a peaceful solution.

Any raid on the shrine, the holiest Shiite site in the country, risked igniting a massive Shiite rebellion throughout Iraq against the fledgling interim government, already battling a persistent and bloody Sunni insurgency.

In the southern city of Amarah, clashes between British forces and al-Sadr militants killed 12 people and injured 22 others, said Dr. Sa'ad Mahmoud from al-Zahrawi of Zahrawi General Hospital.

The fighting started when militants attacked a British foot patrol with small arms and fired mortar rounds at a building housing British troops, residents said.

Lebanese Foreign Ministry officials also said Wednesday that Lebanese hostage Mohammed Raad, who was kidnapped on Aug. 2, had been freed by his Iraqi captors and was in the Lebanese Embassy in Baghdad.

Masked militants had promised to release him in a video aired Tuesday on the al-Arabiya satellite channel, saying they were responding to an appeal by The Association of Muslim Scholars, an influential Sunni Muslim group in Iraq that's believed to have links to insurgents.

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