The United States has acknowledged that the
assassination of a pro-Western Shi'ite leader was a setback to efforts to
bring democracy to Iraq.
U.S. officials said they are examining the killing of Abdul Majid Al
Khoei by supporters of an Iranian-backed rival on Thursday. They said Al
Khoei, who returned to Iraq on April 3 from exile in London, might have been
killed in an attack sponsored by Iran.
Al Khoei was shot and stabbed at least 30 times in the shrine of Imam
Ali, the founder of Shia Islam, in the southern city of Najaf. Officials
said they have determined that Al Khoei was killed in a
premeditated attack by his rivals in the city, Middle East Newsline reported.
"The murder of Ayatollah Khoei is a tragedy and all the more so because
I think he was a moderate leader of enormously important standing," U.S.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said on Friday. "We still don't know
the circumstances exactly or who was responsible or whether he was the main
target or a regime cleric was the main target. It's a setback, there's no
question. There may be other setbacks."
Wolfowitz said the United States wants to introduce democracy in Iraq.
He said Iraq could join other former dictatorships that have instituted free
elections and freedom of the press.
Officials said Al Khoei's pro-U.S. activities included urging Shi'ites
to cooperate with coalition forces. They said his policy had been supported
Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, regarded as the leading Shi'ite cleric in Iraq.
"He [Al Khoei] was recognized as a leader," Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks,
vice director for operations at U.S.
Central Command, said. "He was courageous in coming back to the country. And
the circumstances surrounding his death we find to be very disappointing."
Brooks said the assassination of Al Khoei could destabilize the Shi'ite
majority in Iraq. The general said Central Command was uncertain
whether the Shi'ite leader was killed in a revenge attack or "it was
something larger at hand."
Last week, the State Department said it planned to allocate $3.1 million
to the Iraqi National Congress for radio and television broadcasts in Iraq.
The department said it would relay additional funds to the INC and other
opposition groups for unspecified activities in Iraq.