Al-Sistani had been in London undergoing medical treatment for almost three weeks, during which time Al-Najaf has become the center of clashes between U.S.-led forces and fighters loyal to rival cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The Iraqi government is threatening a final showdown with al-Sadr's fighters, many of whom are holed up in the shrine. Today, U.S. tanks and troops advanced closer to the shrine, one of Shi'a Islam's holiest sites, following overnight air strikes.
Al-Sistani's return comes as Iraqi government forces backed by U.S. soldiers, tanks, and air power tighten their grip around Al-Najaf's Imam Ali Mosque and al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army holed up inside.
The moderate al-Sistani, often described as Iraq's most influential Shi'a cleric, crossed into Iraq overland from Kuwait in a caravan accompanied by Iraqi security forces. Aides to the bearded, 73-year-old cleric say he is headed to Al-Najaf and has called on Shi'a from across Iraq to march on the "burning city" in a bid to spare it from destruction.
U.S. forces bombarded Al-Najaf early today after warplanes and helicopter gunships hit targets near the shrine overnight. U.S. tanks and troops, meanwhile, have moved closer to the shrine. U.S. Army First Lieutenant Michael Throckmorton said U.S. and Iraqi forces are seeking to isolate al-Sadr's Al-Mahdi Army fighters before attacking. "Right now, what we are trying to do is shape operations, in the big picture, trying to make the battlefield look the way we want to before we actually do anything," he said.
Throckmorton continued: "We are trying to make it more advantageous to what [we] want to do. Any time you can push the enemy into a position where you want them, then you are better off."
Government forces are in the battle zone near the shrine for the first time. Yesterday, they massed about 300 meters from the shrine, blocking the roads around it. More Iraqi soldiers were deployed around the area early today.
U.S. and Iraqi officials say if the shrine is attacked, it will be by Iraqi forces and not U.S. or coalition soldiers.
Yesterday, Iraqi Defense Minister Hazim al-Sha'lan al-Khuza'i warned Al-Mahdi Army fighters in the shrine complex that if they did not leave by last night, they would be wiped out. But the deadline passed without such an attack and al-Sadr's fighters reportedly have not left the holy site.
Al-Sistani's departure for England coincided with the rebellion by fighters loyal to al-Sadr, a firebrand who is challenging the leadership of the Al-Najaf clergy headed by the al-Sistani.
Reports say al-Sistani's dramatic return may be a bid to regain political ground lost during the uprising to al-Sadr, who has depicted himself as the face of anti-U.S. resistance.
An al-Sadr aide told Al-Arabiyah television today that the cleric is prepared to talk to halt the fighting. Al-Sadr has also called for his own followers to march on Al-Najaf.
(compiled from staff and agency reports)Factbox: Iraq's Holy City of Al-Najaf For the latest news on Iraq, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The New Iraq".