Sistani mobilises his 'believers' to march on Najaf in peace bid

The most venerated Shia cleric in Iraq made a sudden intervention in the Najaf crisis yesterday by returning to the country and calling on his supporters to march to the embattled holy city.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani was expected in Najaf today after arriving yesterday in Basra from Kuwait as his lieutenants suggested that he had proposals for ending three weeks of fighting in the city.

Ayatollah Sistani's return came amid intense fighting around the streets leading to the compound of the Imam Ali shrine. US and Iraqi forces sought to tighten their narrowing cordon round the insurgent forces loyal to the militant Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr.

In Basra, Hayder al-Safi, a Sistani aide, read out a statement said to have been issued by the ayatollah. It said: "We ask all believers to volunteer to go with us to Najaf. I have come for the sake of Najaf and I will stay in Najaf until the crisis ends." Members of the ayatollah's team said he intended to depart for Najaf at 7am today. Aides to Sadr also called on their supporters to march to Najaf.

Two people were killed yesterday and five wounded as demonstrators set out to march to Najaf from Kufa.

Witnesses said the demonstrators had been chanting pro-Sadr slogans, but were also carrying pictures of the Ayatollah Sistani, and that Iraqi security forces had been responsible for the shootings.

The ayatollah, whose influence was underlined earlier this year when he pressed for an accelerated timetable for national elections, is sometimes seen as a moderating force in the Shia political scene.

He left Iraq the day after the present fighting erupted for heart treatment in London.

Earlier, police sealed off Najaf's old city, preventing cars from entering the grid of streets to its south-east and fired warning shots in the direction of civilian residents and reporters who attempted to pass them.

Meanwhile, armed police ordered about 50 journalists - including The Independent's correspondent - to leave their hotel at gunpoint and herded them into trucks and pick-ups to be driven at high speed to the police headquarters.

Police, some masked, shouted threats and abuse at the reporters, along with their Iraqi drivers and translators, and fired about a dozen shots inside and outside the hotel before taking them before the police chief, Major-General Ghaleb al-Jazaari, to hear his emotional complaints about media coverage and the sufferings of police officers during the present crisis. There were no injuries. One policeman declared: "You are responsible for many deaths", while another repeated earlier threats to blow up the hotel.

Maj-Gen Jazaari appeared especially exercised about a report on the Dubai-based al-Arabiya network - five of whose team in Najaf were briefly detained yesterday - which he said had claimed that the Ayatollah Sistani was already in Najaf. Al-Arabiya had taken its information from a "man of sedition" who was "used by Muqtada al-Sadr and people from al-Qa'ida".

He told the reporters that he had not been responsible for the way they had been summoned and added: "You are not arrested. We just brought you here to let you know what you are doing and what you have done. Of course, I want to speak with sensitivity with other countries."

The police chief brandished pictures of officers beaten by the Mehdi Army militiamen and added that his nephew, a police officer, had been beheaded. He added: "What can I do? Believe me I will listen to any suggestions. These are our people. They are killing us. We just represent the law. We want to live and we want our people to live." He said that police had not fired first in the incident at Kufa.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksNow available in paperback
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Hire Manager - Tool Hire

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is seeking someone w...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

That's a bit rich

The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

Britain's Atlantis

Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

David Starkey's assessment
Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

'An enormous privilege and adventure'

Oliver Sacks writing about his life
'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago