04/16/2004, 00.00
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Al-Sistani tells USA: "The city of Najaf is off-limits"

Najaf (AsiaNews) - Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the country's highest Shiite authority, has called a meeting of Provisional Government representatives, asking them to communicate his clear and decisive message to the Americans: "The (holy) city of Al-Najaf is off-limits."  

American troops have been deployed around Najaf, as 2500 soldiers stand ready to enter the city, crush the Al-Mahdi army and capture their leader, radical Imam Moqtada Al-Sadr, held responsible for uprisings in Baghdad, Bassora, Nassiriya and other Shiite regions.  

The young and rebellious Imam Muqtada Al-Sadr left the city of Kufa a few days ago and has taken refuge in Najaf, as a sign of submission to chief Shiite leaders and in search of protection.

According to eyewitnesses, U.S. soldiers handed out fliers today on which it was read that "Muqtada Al-Sadr is an outlaw". Such words have hardened Al-Sadr's position in negotiations with Coalition forces.

Among the various solutions proposed to ease the crisis was the request for Al-Sadr's exile in Iran. However, the idea was rejected by both the Iranian government and Muqtada Al-Sadr himself.    

Al-Sistani's message to the United States is not an ultimatum. His words are the advice of an old wise man to avoid undesired repercussions –by all parties involved.

Najaf is the most beloved holy city for Shiites worldwide, from Iraq to Afghanistan, and home to the tomb of Ali Bnu Abi Taleb, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed and the fourth Caliph. The ancient city has also been the seat of world Shiite religious leaders for more than a thousand years.  Najaf, a city with 560,000 inhabitants located 160 km south of Baghdad, is also home to the Al-Hawsa Al-Ilmiyya Shiite seminary.

For every violation and entry of foreign armed forces into the holy city reckless disorder could well be triggered across the country.   Meanwhile, Al-Sistani urged foreign troops to "respect the sacredness of holy sites" and to avoid commenting on Imam Muqtada Al-Sadr inspired revolts.

Al-Sistani kept silent about the abduction and killing of foreign citizens in Iraq.

Al-Sistani, well respected by Shiites, Sunnis and Christians,  is called the "Gandhi of Iraq" by the Arab press.  (PB)

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