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Al-Sistani returns to Iraq, urges march on Najaf

Explosions around mosque continue into early Thursday

Smoke rises over Najaf Wednesday night as clashes around the Imam Ali Mosque continue.
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CNN's Diana Muriel has a rare look inside the Imam Ali Mosque.
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Imam Ali Mosque

NAJAF, Iraq (CNN) -- Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most powerful Shiite Muslim cleric, called on Iraqis Wednesday to march to Najaf to help rescue the holy city, site of nearly three weeks of fighting between insurgents and U.S. and Iraqi troops.

A new round of explosions hit the area around the Imam Ali Mosque early Thursday, the fifth consecutive night of airstrikes on central Najaf by U.S. forces. A large column of smoke could be seen rising from one of the buildings struck.

The airstrikes came on what several Mehdi Army members called the "worst day" of violence since the conflict reignited around the mosque, a site sacred to Shiites. Mehdi Army is the militia associated with radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Militia members interviewed by CNN resolved to defend the mosque, as well as the surrounding area in the Old City, where artillery and gunfire was heard during the day in the streets and inside the mosque compound.

"We are all here," said one militiaman. "We are here to stay. We will defend the mosque."

Al-Sistani arrived in the southern Iraqi city of Basra on Wednesday from England, where he had undergone an angioplasty.

Since last week, the grand ayatollah's representatives have tried to negotiate to get the keys of the Imam Ali shrine, but the talks have apparently become bogged down.

Before his return to Iraq, al-Sistani asked all Iraqis to "march to Najaf in order to rescue the city," according to his spokesman in Damascus, Syria.

There were reports of people planning to travel to the city, from nearby Kufa and the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City, an al-Sadr stronghold. Najaf police chief Ghalib al-Jazairi warned that converging on the city center would be dangerous.

An al-Sadr spokesman, Hazim al-A'rajy, welcomed a non-violent demonstration.

"Let them come," al-A'rajy said. "We welcome a peaceful process. We welcome anything to stop the conflict."

Al-Sadr is wanted by Iraqi authorities in connection with the killing of a rival cleric in April 2003.

Delegations hope to broker peace

Arabic-language news network Al-Arabiya reported that two delegations are in Basra for talks with al-Sistani and then will be headed to Najaf for negotiations with al-Sadr.

The first one represents the Iraqi interim government and headed by two ministers of state, Kasim Daoud and Wa'il Abdul Latif. The other delegation is representing the Iraqi National Conference and headed by Hussein al-Sadr.

Also, Shiite politician Abdul Aziz al-Hakim said the al-Sistani is pursuing an initiative to bring peace that will soon be announced.

"The initiative is based on the principles, which he always believes in and calls for, namely vacating Najaf from armed elements, ending fighting and solving the crisis through a peaceful way without resorting to arms," al-Hakim said.

Najaf police round up reporters

Iraqi police angered by news coverage of the standoff around the Imam Ali Mosque rousted journalists from their hotel at gunpoint Wednesday night and took them to hear police chief al-Jazairi criticize their reporting.

About 50 journalists were taken to police headquarters, including representatives of CNN, the British Broadcasting Corporation, Agence France-Presse and several U.S. newspapers.

Iraqi police officials have expressed anger that journalists pay too much attention to al-Sadr and not enough to the police.

When the journalists were returned to their hotel many found their rooms had been ransacked, and some reported small amounts of money missing.

Najaf Gov. Adnan al-Zurufi later sent a bus to the hotel to collect journalists so he could deliver an apology, but the journalists refused to go.

Other developments

  • Torture was among the abuses committed at Abu Ghraib prison, said Maj. Gen. George Fay on Wednesday. His recently concluded report found that 23 U.S. military intelligence personnel and four contractors working with them could be associated with the abuses. (Full story)
  • U.S. bombing continued for a second day in the Sunni Triangle city of Falluja. The U.S. military launched airstrikes there after taking fire from enemy positions around the city and shot back with ground artillery and tank fire, a 1st Marine Expeditionary Force spokesman said Wednesday.
  • A top police official told reporters at the governor's office in Najaf that some of al-Sadr's top aides and Mehdi Army members have been apprehended. Officials claimed one of them was carrying $40,000 and stolen artifacts from the shrine. The brother of Sheikh Ali Smaisem confirmed the sheikh's arrest.
  • The brother-in-law of the Iraqi defense minister has been abducted -- according to a video aired Wednesday on Al-Jazeera, the Arabic-language TV network -- by militants who call themselves The Godly Rage Group. The video shows a man the group claims is a brother-in-law of Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem Sha'alan, identified as Gen. Salah Hassan Zeidan. At least one other man was seized. The video showed two men surrounded by militants who demand a halt to military actions in Najaf.
  • Two Turkish companies began pulling staff and equipment out of Iraq "to save the lives" of two employees held captive by Islamic militants, a state-run news agency reported Thursday. A group calling itself Mujahid Imam Brigades on Wednesday issued a video showing the two electrical workers, identified as Abdullah Ozdemir and Ali Daskin.
  • CNN's Kianne Sadeq in Najaf, a CNN stringer in Falluja, and Kevin Flower and Cal Perry in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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