BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon's Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, one of Shi'ite Islam's highest religious authorities and an early mentor of the militant group Hezbollah, died in a Beirut hospital on Sunday.
Political leaders and clerics from Iran, Bahrain and Iraq paid tribute to Fadlallah, reflecting the loyalty he enjoyed from Shi'ites as far away as the Gulf and Central Asia.
Fadlallah, who was 74, had been too frail to deliver his regular Friday prayers sermon for several weeks, and had been in hospital since Friday suffering from internal bleeding.
Crowds gathered to pay condolences at the Hassanein mosque in southern Beirut where he preached, and Hezbollah said it would mark his death with three days of mourning. Fadlallah's office said he would be buried at the mosque on Tuesday.
Black banners and pictures of the white-bearded, black-turbaned cleric hung outside mosques and his charitable institutions in Shi'ite areas of southern Lebanon and the Beqaa valley in the east.
"He was a guide not just for Lebanon but for the whole world and for Muslims," said mourner Abu Muhammed Hamadeh outside the Hassanein mosque where men and women wept openly, some of them clutching his picture. "With his death, he has left a very large void in the Arab and Muslim world".
Fadlallah was a supporter of Iran's Islamic Revolution and one of the first backers of the Iraqi Dawa Party of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. He was also the spiritual leader and mentor of the Shi'ite guerrilla group Hezbollah when it was formed after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, though he later distanced himself from its ties with Iran.
"Today we lost a merciful father and a wise guide," Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said. "That is what he was to this generation... since we were youths praying at his mosque and learning at his pulpit."
"We learnt at his school... to be people of dialogue, and to reject oppression and to resist occupation".
A fierce critic of the United States, which formally designated him a terrorist, Fadlallah used many of his Friday prayer sermons to denounce U.S. policies in the Middle East, particularly its alliance with Israel.
But he was also quick to denounce the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States which killed some 3,000 people.
Fadlallah survived several assassination attempts, including a 1985 car bomb which killed 80 people in south Beirut. U.S. news reports said the attack was carried out by a U.S.-trained Lebanese unit after attacks on U.S. targets in Lebanon.
He distanced himself from the abduction of Westerners by Islamic militant groups in Lebanon during the 1980s, saying he was against kidnappings, and repeatedly called for their release.
He was known in Shi'ite religious circles for his moderate social views, especially on women. He issued several notable fatwas, or religious opinions, including banning the Shi'ite practice of shedding blood during the mourning ritual of Ashura.
Iran's main television news channel gave rolling coverage to Fadlallah's death, and clerics in the holy Shi'ite city of Qom mourned "the demise of learned warrior and pious jurist".
Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr declared three days of mourning among his followers, and a delegation from the Shi'ite al-Wefaq bloc in Bahrain's parliament will attend Fadlallah's funeral.
Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, said Fadlallah "contributed to the consolidation of the values of right and justice to resist injustice".
"...He represented a voice of moderation and an advocate of unity among the Lebanese in particular and Muslims in general".
Fadlallah was born in 1935 in the Iraqi Shi'ite city of Najaf, where he studied before moving to Lebanon in 1966.
In his final sermon, delivered by a deputy on Friday, he condemned Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and criticised the United States for "giving cover to the enemy (Israel)."
A doctor at the Bahman hospital where he was admitted on Friday said he was conscious on arrival. The doctor said when a nurse asked the ailing cleric what he needed, he replied: "For the Zionist entity to cease to exist".
(Additional reporting by Frederik Richter in Bahrain, Mohammed Muhanad in Baghdad, and Ramin Mostafavi in Tehran; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Janet Lawrence)