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Iraqi Shi'a Leader Returns From 23 Year Exile - 2003-05-10

The leader of Iraq's majority Shi'a Muslim community has returned to Iraq after 23 years in exile. Thousands of followers cheered as Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim crossed over the border from Iran Saturday.

There was a hero's welcome for Ayatollah al-Hakim as he came home to watch over the formation of a new government following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Mr. Al-Hakim has spoken favorably of making Iraq an Islamic republic under Sharia law, but he plays down any comparisons with the hardline clerics who dominate Iran, where he lived in exile.

Mr. Al-Hakim leads the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which has a militia of several thousand fighters.

After initial reluctance, the Supreme Council has joined other political factions in negotiations on forming a post-war government.

Shi'ites make up about 60 percent of Iraq's population, but they were brutally repressed by Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime. Several of the ayatollah's relatives were killed by the regime.