Exiled ayatollah returns in triumph

The Telegraph (England), May 11, 2003
BY Charlotte Edwardes in Basra

Ayatollah Mohammed Baqr al Hakim, the leader of Iraq’s biggest Shia Muslim group, demanded the establishment of an independent Iraqi government as he returned to a hero’s welcome yesterday after 23 years in exile in Iran.

Accompanied by an entourage of 750 people, including his Iranian-trained private army, the 63-year-old cleric, who has been compared to Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran, was met by a crowd of 20,000 in the southern city of Basra, where he is expected to remain for 10 days.

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Up to 100,000 people packed a stadium to listen to Mr Hakim call for a government controlled by Iraq not foreign powers. “This government must be chosen by Iraqis and totally independent,” he said.

“We will not accept a government that is imposed on us. We have gone such a long way in such hard times, we are now on the road to security and stability. This is a jihad [holy war] of reconstruction after the destruction of the oppressors. This must be a march for independence. We used to say yes, yes to freedom, now we say yes, yes to independence.”

Many people in the crowd had waited to greet him at the Iranian border since dawn. A deafening cacophony of chanting, car horns, drumbeats and foot-stamping heralded his arrival as the crowds, waving banners and palm leaves, mobbed his vehicle. Ten sheep were herded in front of him and slaughtered in the road to mark the celebration of the religious leader whom many Shias believe will be their salvation in post-Saddam Iraq.

Among his well-wishers were members of Iraq’s faction of Hizbollah, who until now have kept their political activities secret. Representatives of 10 local tribes waved flags of support and others brandished photographs of Ayatollah Khomeini and of Baqir al Sadr, the powerful leader of the Shia Al Dawah movement who was killed by Saddam in 1980.

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