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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sistani Returns, Calls for March on Najaf

NAJAF, Iraq -- Iraq's most powerful Shiite cleric arrived home from Britain on Wednesday and his aides called for a nationwide march to Najaf to end nearly three weeks of fierce fighting between U.S. forces and Shiite militants in this holy city.

The announcement came as heavy fighting persisted in Najaf's Old City, the center of much of the past three weeks of clashes. U.S. warplanes fired on the neighborhood, helicopters flew overhead and heavy gunfire was heard in the streets, witnesses said.

Iraqi police sealed off the Old City, preventing cars from entering.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Hussein al-Sistani has been in London for medical treatment since Aug. 6, one day after clashes erupted in Najaf. The cleric wields enormous influence among Shiite Iraqis, and his return could play a crucial role in stabilizing the crisis.

Sistani crossed into southern Iraq from Kuwait about midday in a caravan of sport utility vehicles accompanied by Iraqi police and national guardsmen.

"He will return to the holy city of Najaf to rescue it from its ordeal," Hamed al-Khafaf said in an e-mail sent before Sistani's arrival.

In separate violence west of Baghdad, U.S. warplanes and tanks bombed the volatile city of Fallujah for more than two hours, killing at least four people, hospital officials and residents said.

Based in the city are Sunni insurgents the government believes are responsible for months of kidnappings, bombings and shooting attacks against coalition troops, Iraqi forces and civilians across the country.

A U.S. Marine spokesman said Wednesday that several insurgent "firing positions have been struck this morning with tank fire, and yes, aircraft were also used against the targets."

In recent days, U.S. and Iraqi forces in Najaf tightened a cordon around the Old City and the neighboring Imam Ali shrine, the holiest Shiite site in Iraq. U.S. forces shelled militants loyal to rebel Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in the Old City on Wednesday and smoke rose into the sky after U.S. warplanes pummeled the area overnight.

The relentless U.S. bombing in Najaf appeared to be weakening the militants. Iraqi troops moved to within 200 meters of the revered shrine, and Iraq's defense minister once again demanded that fighters loyal to Sadr surrender or face a violent raid.

The militant force, which once waged fierce battles with U.S. troops throughout the Old City and Najaf's vast cemetery, seemed considerably diminished in number and less aggressive Tuesday after days of U.S. airstrikes and heavy artillery pounding.

Hundreds of insurgents have been leaving Najaf in recent days, witnesses said. Those that remained appeared to have pulled back to the area around the shrine, where Tuesday's fighting was concentrated, U.S. troops said.

Police say Sadr, who has not been seen in public for days, has fled the city.

His aides, however, vigorously denied that, saying Sadr was in a secret hide-out here. Regardless, the fiery, charismatic cleric's absence from the battlefield may have withered his followers' morale.