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Subject: Crowd Kills Two Islamic Clerics at Mosque in Najaf


Author:
Najaf
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Date Posted: April 10, 2003 7:25:21 EDT

A furious crowd hacked to death two clerics during a melee Thursday at one of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines, witnesses said, at a meeting meant to serve as a model for reconciliation in post-Saddam Iraq.

The U.S. military had been eager to display the meeting at the shrine of Imam Ali; it flew two helicopters of journalists to the holy city of Najaf to see it. But the group arrived at the site to witness what happened.

One of the clerics killed, Haider al-Kadar, was a widely hated loyalist of Saddam Hussein, part of the Iraqi leader's ministry of religion. The other was Abdul Majid al-Khoei, a high-ranking Shiite cleric and son of one of the religion's most prominent ayatollahs, or spiritual leaders, who was persecuted by Saddam. Al-Khoei had urged cooperation with U.S. troops.

He had returned April 3 from exile in London to help restore order after the city was taken by U.S. forces. His return was seen as a positive sign by exiled Iraqis that Washington would not rely entirely on local leaders to assume authority. He had accompanied al-Kadar to the meeting in a gesture of reconciliation.

But things went horribly wrong.

"People attacked and killed both of them inside the mosque," said Ali Assayid Haider, a mullah who traveled from the southern city of Basra for the meeting.

One witness said a third person was killed; an unknown number of people were wounded.

The witness accounts could not be independently confirmed. But it appeared that when the two men arrived at the shrine, members of another faction loyal to a different mullah, Mohammed Baqer al-Sadr, were furious at al-Kadar's presence.

"Al-Kadar was an animal," said Adil Adnan al-Moussawi, 25, a witness. "Everybody was afraid of him. The people were shouting that they hated him, that he should not be there."

Apparently feeling threatened and to defend al-Kadar al-Khoei pulled a gun and fired one or two shots. There were conflicting accounts over whether he fired the bullets into the air, or in the crowd.

Both men were then rushed by the crowd and hacked to death with swords and knives, the witnesses said.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States was "deeply saddened" by al-Khoei's death.

"It's a reminder that Iraq is still dangerous in many places, and a reminder of how important it is for all of us to work to create a situation where Iraqis can express themselves freely, where all points of view can be expressed freely and without intimidation or violence," Boucher said.

The meeting's dismal failure Thursday underscored how difficult it will be to bridge rivalries as the U.S. military and interim civil administration led by retired Gen. Jay Garner tries to fill the power vaccuum left by the collapse of Saddam's regime.

There were no U.S. troops near the meeting because of a deal with local mullahs to keep armed troops at least 500 yards from the area.

First word of the incident came when military vehicles carrying the visiting journalists tried to approach the area of the mosque, and were stopped by crowds who warned them to stay away for their own safety.

Journalists later approached the mosque from another angle on foot. The structure, decorated with a gold dome and minarets and ornate tiling, stands above the dust and squalor of Najaf, where goats and donkeys share streets with beat-up cars, barefoot children and women dressed in black.

The journalists did not enter the mosque, but saw bloodstains on a sidewalk outside. A fire truck eventually pulled up, apparently to clean up the mess, and one man told the crowd to disperse.

Special Forces troops launched an investigation late in the day to determine what happened, said Capt. Townley Hedrick, a spokesman for the 101st Airborne Division, which controls most of Najaf.

Military officials refused to describe the incident as a setback and said that the coalition did not appear to be the target.

"I think it remains to be seen what actually happened," said Marine Maj. David Andersen. "This will be one of the big challenges for Iraq and its sects to co-exist and basically come to some kind of agreement or unity."

Al-Khoei was among the most prominent returned exiles. When he arrived in Najaf a week ago, he said local clerics were attempting to negotiate a deal whereby Iraqi loyalists would leave the mosque in return for safe passage out of the city.

His father, Ayatollah Abul-Qassim al-Khoei, was the revered Shiite spiritual leader at the time of the 1991 Shiite uprising crushed by Saddam. He died in 1992, a year after he was forced to meet Saddam to prove loyalty. The meeting was televised by Iraqi TV in a gesture to humiliate the Shiites.

Al-Khoei told The Associated Press recently that he has urged his followers in the Shiite cities to stay at home and let the U.S. troops do their job. He said Saddam's tactics of urban warfare and the use of paramilitary militias made it highly risky for the population to revolt.

A tearful Ghanem Jawad at the Khoei foundation in London confirmed that al-Khoei had been attacked, but didn't know if he'd been killed. He accused a group of "followers of the regime" of attacking the men.

Al-Khoei had lived in London, where he headed a philanthropic foundation, since he defected after the 1991 Shiite uprising. A tearful Ghanem Jawad at the Khoei foundation confirmed that al-Khoei had been attacked, but didn't know if he'd been killed.

After his arrival in Najaf, al-Khoei told the AP by telephone that he and a group of exiled Iraqis had helped persuade locals in Najaf to cooperate with U.S. troops.

Najaf is the seat of the Shiites' spiritual leaders, known as ayatollahs, and a center for scientific, literary and theological studies for the Islamic world. For the world's nearly 120 million Shiites, Najaf is the third holiest city, behind Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.

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