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Iraq's most influential Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, has returned to Iraq to "save" his home, the war-damaged holy city of Najaf.

His aides called for a nationwide march to Najaf.

They want to end nearly three weeks of fierce fighting between US forces and Shi'te militants in the city.

The Grand Ayatollah, 73, is currently in Basra, after flying from Britain where he had undergone medical treatment.

After learning that he had arrived in the southern Iraqi city, hundreds of people flocked to his house, waving Iraqi flags.

An aide said the cleric would travel to Najaf on Thursday. US and Iraqi forces are continuing their stand-off in the city near the sacred Imam Ali mosque.

Sistani's convoy heads to Basra

Heavy fighting has persisted in the Old City, the focus of most of the recent clashes.

US warplanes fired at gunmen loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al Sadr, helicopters flew overhead and heavy gunfire was heard in the streets.

Najaf's police chief said Sadr's Mehdi Army militia force was on its last legs.

However, witnesses said militants were still fighting in the streets, although the relentless US attacks appeared to be weakening them.

Meanwhile, in Baghdad, the Polish embassy was hit by two mortar shells, but no one was injured.


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