Prominent Iraqi Shi'ite leader returns from exile

 

The leader of Iraq's biggest Shi'ite Muslim group returned home today to the cheers of thousands of emotional Iraqis after 23 years in exile in neighbouring Iran.

Supporters waved flags and chanted Shi'ite slogans when the convoy of Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim (63) crossed into Iraq from Iran, where the influential cleric has led the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) since 1980.

Many tried frantically to touch his car and others beat their chests in a traditional Shi'ite gesture. Some wept tears of joy at the border area, 20 km (12 miles) from the southern Iraqi city of Basra where Hakim was later expected to address thousands of supporters.

"I have great faith that God almighty will free the Iraqi people and restore Iraq to its former position in the region and the rest of the world, God willing," Hakim told reporters.

Hakim, who was jailed and tortured in the 1970s for opposing Saddam Hussein, has said he will perform whatever role the Iraqi people wishes of him now Saddam and his Baath Party have been overthrown.

The Shi'ite cleric has said he favours a democratically elected, broad-based coalition government to replace Saddam, who was toppled by US-led forces in a war launched on March 20th.

"Hakim has had many martyrs in his family. He deserves our welcome after 23 years abroad. It is the right of every Iraqi to come back now after the fall of Saddam Hussein," said Mohammad Lamrayani (36) from Basra.

Hakim's close ties to Iran and the armed militia known as the Badr Forces which he commands have aroused some alarm in Washington. But Hakim has sought to play down those fears, stressing he is not seeking to remake Iraq in the image of Iran's Islamic Republic.

However, speaking to Dubai-based al-Arabiya television before he left Tehran, Hakim said the presence of foreign forces in Iraq was "a very big problem which must be dealt with".