Page last updated at 21:25 GMT, Sunday, 24 August 2008 22:25 UK

'Sick' Iraqi cleric courts press

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani had heart surgery four years ago.

Iraq's most senior Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has held a rare press conference to dispel rumours that he is seriously ill.

The 78-year-old Grand Ayatollah appeared to be in good health when he spoke to Iraqi reporters at his compound in the southern city of Najaf.

He avoids publicity and this was his first press meeting since 2006.

The move was prompted by persistent reports in recent weeks that Ali al-Sistani was in very poor health.

'Report the reality'

"Recently, untrue rumours have surfaced about my health", the Grand Ayatollah told Iraqi correspondents.

"I urge journalists to report the reality", he told them.

Ayatollah Sistani is the most important Shia leader in Iraq.

He rarely intervenes in politics but he has played a critical role in Iraq at key times since the fall of Saddam Hussein - notably when the constitution was being drafted and during the Shia uprising.

His judgement is respected by both politicians and ordinary people alike in Iraq, correspondents say.

He underwent heart surgery in London in 2004.

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