Author`s name Pravda.Ru

Shiite cleric helps end 3-week Najaf standoff

Iraq's most powerful Shiite cleric returned home from Britain on Wednesday to help broker an end to nearly three weeks of fighting in Najaf and is calling on his followers to join him in a march to reclaim the holy city, his spokesmen and witnesses said.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini &to=' target=_blank>al-Sistani return came as heavy fighting persisted in Najaf's Old City. U.S. warplanes fired on suspected insurgent positions, helicopters flew overhead and heavy gunfire was heard in the streets, witnesses said.

Al-Sistani, 73, crossed into southern Iraq from Kuwait about midday in a caravan of sport utility vehicles accompanied by Iraqi police and national guardsmen. The convoy quickly passed through the southern city of &to=' target=_blank>Basra, witnesses said.

He had been in London for medical treatment since Aug. 6, one day after clashes erupted in Najaf. The cleric wields enormous influence among Shiite Iraqis and his return could play a crucial role in stabilizing the nearly three-week-old crisis, informs Associated Press.

According to Reuters, Sistani reached Basra from Kuwait in a convoy of more than a dozen vehicles led by police cars with sirens wailing.

His departure for London coincided with the outbreak of the three-week revolt by Sadr, a young cleric who has challenged the collegiate leadership of the &to=' target=_blank>Najaf clergy led by Sistani.

The call to march appears to be an attempt by the Iranian-born cleric to reclaim some of the political ground captured during the uprising by Sadr, who has painted himself as the face of anti-U.S. resistance and icon to the poor masses.