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Iraq: Violence Near Al-Najaf As Shi'a Cleric Arrives On Peace Mission

Al-Sistani returns to Al-Najaf Prague, 26 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Hundreds of people were crowded into Al-Kufah's golden-domed mosque when the mortar attack came.

Television pictures showed dead bodies lying throughout the compound, a stronghold of followers of the radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Ambulances rushed to take scores of wounded to a nearby hospital, where official Adil Kadhim spoke to Reuters above the noise.

"Eighty-three wounded people were admitted to the hospital and we received five bodies. There are still wounded people on the street and inside Al-Kufah Mosque," Kadhim said.

After the mosque attack, there was more violence.

Al-Sadr supporters came under fire from unidentified gunmen as they began marching on nearby Al-Najaf, and several casualties were reported.

The violence came just before Iraq's top Shi'a cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, arrived in the area.

His mission: to try and end a standoff in Al-Najaf between U.S.-led forces and al-Sadr's militia.

Al-Sistani returned to Iraq from London yesterday and called on supporters across the country to march on Al-Najaf to bolster his peace mission.

Al-Sistani's representative in Kuwait, Ayatollah Abolqassem Dibaji, spoke to RFE/RL about the mission late yesterday.

"He [al-Sistani] is coming back [to Al-Najaf] so as to bring security and calm to the Iraqi people and, particularly, the people of Al-Najaf. Tomorrow [26 August] millions of people [will welcome him]. He is popular among all the people of Iraq and all the classes, and since he is the leader of Shi'a, his presence will naturally resolve many problems and crises," Dibaji said.

But al-Sadr has also called for his followers to converge on Al-Najaf, and that's prompted fears of violence between the rival groups.

That's why al-Sistani has also urged his supporters to wait outside the city until he arrived.

Al-Sistani arrived from Al-Basrah in a huge convoy of police cars, British military vehicles, and hundreds of cars driven by his supporters.

A senior aide, Hamed al-Khafaf, traveling with the cleric on the lengthy journey said the Al-Kufah bloodshed will not delay the trip.


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