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.