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Iraq's Top Shi'ite Cleric Returns Home, Fighting Temporarily Suspended in Najaf - 2004-08-25

Iraq's most influential Shi'ite Muslim cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has returned home and is calling for a nationwide march to end the three-week standoff with radical Shi'ite militants holed up in the Imam Ali shrine in the holy city of Najaf. Iraqi militants have kidnapped a relative of the defense minister. Several people were killed in a U.S. airstrike in the western city of Fallujah.

Iraqi Shi'ites are heading to Najaf in response to Grand Ayatollah Sistani's call for a march to prevent a raid on the holy Imam Ali shrine to oust the militants holed up inside.

The 73-year-old Shi'ite cleric has returned to Iraq from London where he was treated for a heart ailment. He says he has a plan to end the three-week uprising by militia loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

"Najaf residents are pinning their hopes on Ayatollah Sistani to end the crisis and stop the bloodshed. "We are getting tired," said one Najaf resident. "We are starving and we have been experiencing hard times."

In Baghdad, the spokesman for the Human Rights Ministry, Husham al-Suheil, says tons of relief aid have been sent to Najaf.

Mr. Suheil says 40 tons of supplies have been sent on the orders of the prime minister.

The Iraqi government has issued an ultimatum to the firebrand cleric and his militants to lay down their weapons, leave the holy Shi'te shrine and join the political process.

A group calling itself the "Brigades of Divine Anger" say they have kidnapped the Defense Minister's brother-in-law and are demanding an end to military operations in Nafaj. The militants are also demanding the release from detention of Moqtada al-Sadr's top aide who was arrested earlier on Thursday.

In nearby Kufa, unidentified gunmen opened fire on a peaceful demonstration in support of the radical cleric.

In other news, an Islamist militant group says it has beheaded a hostage it says was guilty of spying for Washington.

And finally, Iraqi fans were disappointed but not demoralized by the loss of their Olympic soccer team that ended hopes of a gold medal.

"People of Iraq are very good, very happy," he said. "It's okay. Never mind."