U.S. calls killing of Shi'ite cleric 'setback'

Monday, April 14, 2003

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 by 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.

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