IMAGE: Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani
Str  /  Reuters file
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani
updated 8/6/2004 2:51:46 PM ET 2004-08-06T18:51:46

Iraq’s top Shiite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, arrived Friday in Britain for medical treatment after what an aide called “a health crisis” involving his heart.

There was no information on the seriousness of the condition, but the trip was the first time al-Sistani, 73, has been out of Iraq in years, and it is taking him from home in the midst of a new surge in fighting.

Al-Sistani has urged Iraqis to seek change through peaceful means, and he carries great political weight as the top religious figure among the country’s Shiite majority. Officials of the former U.S.-led occupation authority, the United Nations and others have had to pay heed to his views in setting their reconstruction plans.

He arrived at Heathrow Airport west of London about 1:40 p.m. (8:40 a.m. ET), Jaffar Bassam, a spokesman for the Imam Ali foundation, al-Sistani’s liaison office in London, told The Associated Press.

Al-Sistani’s main representative in London, Sayyid Murtadha al-Kashmiri, told Associated Press Television News that he would go straight to a clinic for doctors to assess his condition. He did not say which clinic.

‘Special treatment’
The Foreign Office said al-Sistani was in Britain for a private medical visit. It said there were no special arrangements in place for his trip because it was private.

“The ayatollah suffered a health crisis related to his heart a few days ago,” Sheik Hamed Khafaf, his spokesman in Beirut, Lebanon, told the AP on Thursday. “A team of specialist doctors are treating him and providing care.”

Khafaf said al-Sistani “needs special treatment, but he is not in a deteriorated state.”

Al-Sistani is revered by Shiites in Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, India and Bahrain as a mujtahid, or senior scholar entitled to rule on religious issues.

Since the fall of former President Saddam Hussein, al-Sistani has played an important role in Iraq’s political evolution. He has pushed for a general election to be held at the earliest date possible and for a permanent constitution to be written by elected, not selected, delegates.

He refused to meet U.S. envoys, but the U.S.-led coalition authority was forced to take account of his views as supporters backed his demands with mass demonstrations.

This week, he condemned as “hideous crimes” the bombings of five Christian churches in Iraq, in which seven people were killed and dozens more were wounded.

Al-Sistani, who was born in Iran, lives surrounded by close relatives and aides in a modest home in Najaf, the holy city in southern Iraq where insurgents loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr are in a new round of fierce fighting with U.S. and Iraqi forces.

During a 90-minute stopover Friday in Lebanon, al-Sistani sat in Beirut airport’s VIP lounge, where he was visited by Lebanon’s parliamentary speaker, Nabi Berri, the leader of the Shiite party Amal. Al-Sistani was accompanied by three aides.

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