Iraqi Shiite leader returns home after decades of exile

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The leader of the largest Iraqi Shiite Muslim group opposed to Saddam Hussein returned to Iraq on Saturday after two decades in exile.

The leader of the largest Iraqi Shiite Muslim group opposed to Saddam Hussein returned to Iraq on Saturday after two decades in exile.

Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution of Iraq, crossed the Iranian frontier into Iraq at a desert border crossing that has been a no-man's land for years.

The son of another grand ayatollah, he had been in exile in Iran and under protection of its Shiite religious leaders since fleeing there in 1980.

About 2,000 supporters, including some clerics, gathered through the morning carrying the green flags of Islam and portraits of al-Hakim. When he finally crossed the border midmorning, they swarmed his car, climbing onto it and chanting: "Yes, yes, Islam! Yes, yes, Hakim!"

Al-Hakim's group, known as SCIRI, wants Iraq's future to be governed by Islamic law. He has said in recent days that SCIRI seeks to "realize the will of the Iraqi people," rebuild the country and establish good relationships with neighbours.

While al-Hakim, also known as Baqir, remained in Iran during the weeks after the war last month, his brother, Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, who commands the group's armed wing, returned to Iraq in advance to pave the way for the ayatollah's return.

The brother has been meeting with a small core group of returned exiles who appear poised to become the nucleus of a new government installed by US occupation forces.

The Shiite sect of Islam, a minority in the Islamic world, represents a 60 per cent majority in Iraq and suffered persecution and oppression under Saddam's Sunni Muslim-dominated regime.

The Bush administration is wary of any Iranian-style theocracy taking control in Iraq, and is particularly jittery about the possibility that a democratic vote might produce a conservative, Islamic-oriented government with close ties to Iran's anti-American Shiite clerics.

Washington has accused Tehran — which gave al-Hakim refuge for so long — of meddling in Iraqi affairs.

Al-Hakim's first stop will be the southern Iraqi city of Basra, a Shiite stronghold. He is also expected to go to Najaf, a centre for Shiite Islam scholarship.

SCIRI opposes a US administration in Iraq but has close ties with the rest of the US-backed opposition, including the Kurds and the London-based Iraqi National Congress.

The council's military wing, the Badr Brigade, which the group claims has several thousand fighters, operated secretly for years in Iraq against Saddam's rule.

The fighters have been ordered not to confront US forces, but the group has made its rejection of American dominance clear: It boycotted the first major US-led meeting held near Nasiriyah last month to pave the way for a new administration.