Thursday, August 26, 2004

NAJAF, Iraq — Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric returned home from Britain yesterday armed with a new peace initiative to end weeks of fighting in Najaf and a call for Iraqis across the country to march on the holy city.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who wields enormous influence among Shi’ite Iraqis, previously had declined to get involved in resolving the conflicts roiling the nation, and it was not clear why he suddenly changed his mind. But his dramatic return from a nearly three-week trip to London, where he had gone for medical treatment, spread optimism that the crisis could be resolved peacefully.

Despite Ayatollah al-Sistani’s call for peace, heavy fighting persisted in Najaf’s Old City, the center of many of the clashes between militants loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and an Iraqi-U.S. force. Late yesterday, U.S. warplanes bombed the area for the fourth night in a row. Skirmishes broke out and huge blasts sporadically shook the city.

In nearby Kufa, unidentified men shooting from an Iraqi guard base killed two persons and wounded five taking part in what appeared to be a peaceful demonstration supporting Sheik al-Sadr.

Soon afterward, three mortar rounds, apparently targeting a police checkpoint, hit a civilian area in Kufa, killing two, including an 8-year-old boy, and wounding four, witnesses and hospital officials said.

A militant group said yesterday that it had kidnapped the brother-in-law of Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan and demanded that he end all military operations here, according to a video obtained by Al Jazeera television.

The militants, calling themselves the “Divine Wrath Brigades,” said they had kidnapped Maj. Gen. Salah Hassan Lami, the brother-in-law and the director of military affairs at the Defense Ministry, according to Al Jazeera. A second man also was kidnapped, though his identity was not clear.

The violence in the past three weeks in Najaf has killed scores of civilians, destroyed shops and homes in the Old City and slightly damaged the revered Imam Ali shrine, where Sheik al-Sadr’s followers have taken refuge.

Ayatollah al-Sistani, 75, the nation’s most respected Shi’ite cleric, left for London on Aug. 6, one day after the clashes erupted. He underwent an angioplasty on Aug. 13 to unblock a coronary artery and had been recuperating, when his office suddenly announced yesterday morning that he was returning to the country “to stop the bloodshed.”

The ayatollah crossed into southern Iraq from Kuwait about midday in a caravan of sport utility vehicles accompanied by Iraqi police and national guardsmen. The convoy stopped in the southern city of Basra, where the cleric planned to spend the night before heading to Najaf today.

Ayatollah al-Sistani met with a delegation of government ministers and mediators and told them that military operations in Najaf must end and that the government must not raid the Imam Ali shrine.

“I hope that peace prevails in Iraq. I hope that peace prevails in Najaf,” he said.

Later, the ayatollah proposed a peace initiative, calling for Najaf and Kufa to be declared weapons-free cities, for all foreign forces to withdraw from Najaf and leave security to the police and for the Iraqi government to compensate those harmed by the fighting here, said his aide, Hamed al-Khafaf.

Iraqi police sealed off Najaf’s Old City, preventing cars from entering, and the police chief, Maj. Gen. Ghalib al-Jazaari, said the Mahdi’s Army militia of Sheik al-Sadr “is finished.”

Witnesses in the Old City said the militants were still fighting in the streets, though the relentless U.S. attacks appeared to be taking their toll.

Police also arrested several al-Sadr aides with valuables from the shrine in their possession, Gen. al-Jazaari said. One of Sheik al-Sadr’s top lieutenants, Sheik Ali Smeisim, was among those arrested, police said.

In an effort to show support for peace, Ayatollah al-Sistani “will lead thousands of followers on a march to holy Najaf,” Mr. al-Khafaf told the Arab satellite television station Al Arabiya. “We call upon all devout Iraqis who follow him” to head to Najaf.

Basra Gov. Hassan al-Rashid said the peace march will take place today. “The masses will gather at the outskirts of Najaf and they will not enter the city until all armed men, except the Iraqi policemen, withdraw from the city,” he said.

Al-Sadr aides issued their own call for a march on Najaf.

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