Monday, August 16, 2004

Cleric to leave UK for Najaf

By Madeline Chambers

LONDON (Reuters) - Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most influential Shi'ite cleric who is undergoing medical treatment in London, is worried about violence in Najaf and wants to return as soon as he can, says his spokesman.

Sistani's health could prove crucial to Iraq's stability. He stands against the resistance espoused by the young Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose militia has fought U.S. and Iraqi government forces for more than a week in the latest flare-up.

"He has been worrying and is deeply concerned about what is happening in Iraq in the last few days," a spokesman for Sistani in London, Murtada al-Kashmiri, told Reuters on Monday.

"He intends to return to Iraq as soon as possible."

Hundreds have died in the fighting, which has been particularly fierce in the holy city of Najaf, where Sistani lives.

Many of Iraq's Shi'ite majority view the reclusive Iranian-born Sistani as their highest religious authority and are anxiously waiting for his recovery and return to Iraq.

Kashmiri said exactly when the Muslim cleric returned would depend on doctors' advice. He came to London on August 6.

Sistani had an operation to unblock a coronary artery in a London hospital last week and was due to undergo eye surgery later on Monday.

Sistani's spokesman said the 73-year-old was asking doctors to treat him and make recommendations as fast as possible. He said there was no deterioration in the cleric's condition.

"God willing, it is okay," he said.

The violence has increased the pressure on Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's government, which is this week trying to choose an interim national assembly.

His aides have denied suggestions Sistani left Najaf out of concerns for his safety.

Although he opposes the involvement of the Shi'ite religious establishment in politics, Sistani has advocated pluralism in postwar Iraq and has stood against U.S. plans to have a permanent constitution drafted by an unelected body.

The clashes in Najaf, home to Shi'ite Islam's holiest site, resumed after the collapse of peace talks on Saturday, but United States and Iraqi forces have not launched a new all-out offensive.

Posted on Mon 16 August, 2004 13:28



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