Iraq's most respected Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, made a dramatic return to the country Wednesday and urged all Iraqi Muslims to join him on a march to the southern city of Najaf and end the rebellion by Shia militia loyal to rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Iraqis by the thousands appeared to heed the call, boarding cars and buses throughout the night. They headed to Najaf in convoys to join what he said would be a march to the besieged shrine of Imam Ali, one of the most sacred sites in Islam. The shrine has been the scene of fierce battles between al-Sadr's followers and a combined force of U.S. and Iraqi troops for the past three weeks. There was no sign that al-Sistani or his followers had coordinated their moves with U.S. forces, raising the possibility of a confrontation between his supporters, the U.S. and Iraqi security forces and al-Sadr's militiamen. His aides called for U.S. forces to withdraw from the holy city immediately. Al-Sistani had left Iraq for heart surgery in London on Aug. 6, the day after al-Sadr, a major rival, launched his rebellion. Arab television showed al-Sistani crossing into southern Iraq from Kuwait Wednesday in a caravan of SUVs protected by Iraqi police and national guardsmen. "We ask all believers to volunteer to go with us to Najaf," al-Sistani said in statement read by an aide in Basra. "I have come for the sake of Najaf, and I will stay until the crisis ends." It seemed unlikely that U.S. and Iraqi troops would withdraw from the shrine, which they surrounded and cordoned off. A U.S. AC-130 gunship strafed positions near the shrine late Wednesday, witnesses said. American troops have done most of the heavy fighting in the heart of Najaf's Old City, but the interim Iraqi government has insisted that only Iraqi forces will enter the shrine, the most sacred site for the country's majority Shia population, informs Newsday. According to Reuters, U.S. planes unleashed a fierce attack on rebel targets in Najaf early on Thursday, a Reuters witness said. The air strikes shook Najaf just after U.S. artillery fire and cannon assaults from an AC-130 gunship rattled the Iraqi city of 500,000. Militiamen loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have endured several nights of U.S. air attacks aimed at forcing them to lay down their weapons and leave a shrine where they are holed up. After the attack gray smoke was seen rising near the Imam Ali mosque. U.S. forces have been tightening their siege on Shi'ite militants holed up there. The city which has been gripped by three weeks of fighting. IRAQ’S top Shiite cleric made a dramatic return to Iraq yesterday, pledging to end the uprising in the "burning city" of Najaf, as fighting creeps ever closer to its holiest shrine. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani also called for Iraqis to march on the holy city, something that could escalate passions among the Shiite majority. "We ask all believers to volunteer to go with us to Najaf," Ayatollah Sistani said in a statement read out for him in Basra. "I have come for the sake of Najaf and I will stay in Najaf until the crisis ends." In the Baghdad neighbourhood of Sadr City, supporters quickly left in cars and buses as mosques conveyed the ayatollah’s message. To the west of Najaf, Iraqi police killed two Shiites as they marched towards the holy city, witnesses said. Ayatollah Sistani arrived in Basra from Kuwait in a convoy of vehicles led by police, with sirens wailing. The stay by the ayatollah, 73, in a London hospital, where he underwent heart treatment, coincided with the revolt by the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has challenged the Najaf clergy headed by Ayatollah Sistani. Aides said yesterday the ayatollah will head north to Najaf today with his supporters. They urged US forces encircling the gold-domed mosque to leave. The cleric’s return came as US and Iraqi forces tightened their grip around al-Mahdi army militants in the mosque, reports Scotsman.
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