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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 August, 2004, 11:33 GMT 12:33 UK
Hope and fear on the road to Najaf
Supporters of Iraqi Shia cleric Ayatollah al-Sistani chant while holding his picture on march to Najaf
Thousands came out to welcome back Ayatollah Sistani
Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has just arrived in Najaf to try to end the stand-off involving Shia fighters led by the radical cleric, Moqtada Sadr.

BBC Arabic.com reporter Esam Ainatchi was in the ayatollah's convoy as it made its way from Basra to Najaf.


Between me and the vehicle carrying Ayatollah Sistani there were about 100 cars.

There were thousands of people travelling with him, almost like a huge chain.

People were excited. I spoke to some at a petrol station and they said they were very happy to be returning to Najaf and hopeful that they can do something to improve the situation there.

They said they trusted Ayatollah Sistani and thought his ideas to end the violence would get a positive reaction.

The governor of Najaf has said he doesn't want the ayatollah in the old town in the centre of Najaf because of the lack of security.

Ayatollah Sistani's people have said he will go to the mosque by the end of the day and pray but I don't know if he will.

Hope and apprehension

It was a hard day.

Usually a bus will take about four and half hours from Basra to Najaf but we took much longer because the streets were so crowded.

Many people said they would die to protect Ayatollah Sistani and Najaf
I could not drive faster because there were so many people walking by the side of the road.

People came out of their houses to welcome the ayatollah.

Women and men and even small children were waving at the convoy as it passed.

It was an atmosphere of hope with some feeling of apprehension, because we don't know what is going to happen.

After the attack in the mosque in Kufa people are fearful as no-one can guarantee safety.

Tight security

All over the streets there were the Iraqi national guard and even border guards - they left their posts to come and help.

There were also many Iraqi policeman, every now and then we saw coalition forces, US forces at checkpoints, and there were helicopters and airplanes flying overhead all the time.

Some civilians were there with guns - they were close to Ayatollah Sistani's vehicles. There were 10 particular cars but no-one knew which one he was in.

I spoke to a man driving closer to Ayatollah Sistani. He said they expected Sistani's ideas for peace to be accepted by all people involved in this crisis and they hope he will enter the mosque.

Many people said they would die to protect Ayatollah Sistani and Najaf.


BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
The BBC's Alastair Leithead
"There is optimism...if anyone can bring this crisis to an end it is the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani"



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