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Exiled Shiite opposition leader returns to Iraq

BASRA, Iraq—Buffered by waves of tearful, chanting supporters, Iraq's top Shiite opposition leader returned to his homeland from exile on Saturday, extending an olive branch to rival clerics and demanding that Iraq be turned into a modern Islamic state.

The political tone of Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al Hakim's homecoming left little doubt that the prominent cleric seeks to unite Iraq's Shiite majority under his leadership.

"We have a long road ahead of us, one with many sacrifices," Hakim told supporters. "Most important is that we be unified. Only Iraqis can bring security to Iraq and rebuild it."

Hakim fled Iraq 23 years ago after Saddam's regime killed dozens of his family members. He is the head of one of the largest Shiite opposition groups, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).

"We don't want a Taliban state and we don't want Islam on American terms either," Hakim told the crowd of 80,000 supporters. Instead, he called for a parliamentary system elected by Iraqis that is grounded in Islam while respecting Iraqi non-Muslims rights.

"We want to build a modern state that takes advantage of our vast resources" and in which "good" women will have a strong role, he said.

Hakim praised Iraqis for their sacrifices in resisting Saddam Hussein's regime and heralded a rival cleric's father as one of their country's chief martyrs.

"I will serve all representatives of Mohammed Sadeq al Sadr," he said, a conciliatory message likely directed at the slain spiritual leader's son, Moqtader al Sadr. The younger Sadr has a growing following in Iraq's holiest city, Najaf.

Najaf is Hakim's native place, and he planned to return there Monday, his aides side. First he planned to visit Shiite tribal and religious leaders in southern Iraqi cities on Sunday.

Hakim's homecoming was in a way reminiscent of that of his host, the late Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who returned to Iran from exile following the fall of the shah in 1979.

Yet Khomeini was a more significant religious figure whose message was well known to Iranians before he returned from exile.

Many Iraqi Shiites need to be reacquainted with Hakim, whose group SCIRI spent more time fighting the Iraqi regime than preaching to the Iraqi people.

Posters heralding Hakim as both spiritual leader and freedom fighter were put up all over town the night before his arrival. Still, only a smattering of Basra residents lined the sides of the roads as his convoy inched its way through town.

Basra's tribal leaders, who were invited to hear Hakim speak at his organization's headquarters, praised the ayatollah with poetry and harmonic chants. Thousands of supporters ferried to the border in cars, buses and even dump trucks, who then accompanied Hakim from the Iranian border to Basra, also showered Hakim with praise, prompting the cleric to gush that he "wanted to kiss all of your hands and your foreheads."

"We see the happiness on your faces and that makes us very happy," he said.

Hakim entered Iraq from Shalamcheh, an Iranian border crossing that was one of the bloodiest battlefields of the Iran-Iraq war. The border area has been tense and closed in the 15 years since the war ended.

On Saturday, however, Iranian border guards appeared relaxed even though they had to push back Hakim supporters who kept spilling onto the Iranian side of the border.

British troops watched the ruckus from a couple hundred feet away, but did not get involved.

"Hajji, hajji, please step back and you'll see him in just a few minutes," one Iranian sergeant repeated time and again, using the Muslim term of respect and gentle nudges to usher the Iraqis back onto Iraqi soil. A half dozen sheep were brought up to the crossing to be sacrificed, a custom heralding the return of someone dear in this part of the world.

Hakim arrived in a Toyota Landcruiser amid a convoy of about a dozen vehicles.

The convoy snaked its way through town, past a bullet-ridden portrait of Saddam and one of the deposed leader's destroyed yachts. "Where are you now, Saddam? Hakim is here," supporters crammed into a pick up truck chanted as they drove by.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.