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Arraf: Shia crowds hail Hakim's return

CNN Correspondent Jane Arraf
CNN Correspondent Jane Arraf

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• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
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(CNN) -- Returning for his 23-year exile in Iran, Shia Muslim leader Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim was greeted by massive crowds Monday in the Iraqi city of Najaf. CNN Correspondent Jane Arraf was in Najaf and spoke to anchor Leon Harris about Hakim's arrival.

ARRAF: It's a historic speech going on behind me and a historic day. This is one of the leading Shia Muslim spiritual leaders. And he's arrived here, in Najaf, the city of his birth, one of the holiest cities in Shia Islam, and he's now giving an address at the mosque of Imam Ali. This is a third holiest site in the world for Shia Muslims.

He arrived to an astounding reception. You see all of those cars behind me; this was his convoy that arrived just a short while ago. There were so many people in the square and so many people in the streets. They almost lifted the cars as they moved toward the door of this mosque.

He's now inside calling for Shias across Iraq to unite, reminding them that under Saddam Hussein, under a policy of secularism, their rights were destroyed -- that they no representation -- and it's created this wave of feeling. You can probably hear the chanting behind me.

Most of that is coming from inside this very large mosque. There are probably as many people inside as outside. There could be as many as 10,000 people in this immediate vicinity. And it is the first time in 23 years that he has come back. He has come back not just as a spiritual leader but as a real political force.

HARRIS: Can you give us any sense of exactly how he may affect the political landscape at all? Where does he stand on the U.S. forces there actually liberating Iraq and staying there on the ground in Iraq? Where does he stand on secularism and maintaining any separations between religion and government?

ARRAF: He's been particularly interesting because he does command a considerable amount of support among Iraq's Shia population. The Shias here are more than 60 percent of the population. They never had real political representation in Saddam Hussein's government. But at the same time, they've been a very powerful underground force, one that Saddam could not ignore.

Up until quite recently, this spiritual leader, Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, had refused to take part in the U.S.-backed opposition. He has recently made forays into speaking with them, or his representatives have. But he is now calling for the American troops to leave. This is his bottom line -- that the U.S. troops have to leave Iraq and leave Iraqis to govern it.

At the same time, he says that Iraq should be a modern Islamic state. It's not clear yet what exactly he means by that. We are hoping to speak with him. But it is clear that one of those elements would be Islamic law in some form.

The Shia community here is quite split, as it has been for centuries, and not every Shia supports this particular leader. But he has a considerable amount of support, and he is someone who cannot be ignored.

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