Killing of Shi'ite cleric is blow to plans for pro-West government

Saturday, April 12, 2003

The U.S.-led coalition has sustained a major blow in efforts to win cooperation for the establishment of a pro-Western regime in Iraq.

U.S. officials and Western intelligence sources said the assassination of a leading pro-U.S. Iraqi Shi'ite cleric in the southern city of Najaf robbed the coalition of a spiritual leader who could have won support for a Western-style regime in wake of the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Abdul Majid Al Khoei was killed by supporters of an Iranian-backed rival on Thursday a week after he had returned to Najaf from exile in London, Middle East Newsline reported.

"We are deeply saddened to see this death," U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said on Thursday. "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."

On Thursday, armed men loyal to the Iranian-backed rival cleric killed Al Khoei, 41, and a pro-Saddam cleric, Haider Al Kadar, at the shrine of Imam Ali, the founder of Shi'ite Islam. At the height of the U.S.-led war against Saddam, Al Khoei had urged Shi'ites not to oppose the advance of U.S. forces in Iraq.

Shi'ite clerics told the Kuwaiti-based Al Rai Al Aam daily on Friday that a group of members from the family of Mohammed Sadeq Al Sadr, a Shi'ite cleric assassinated by the Saddam regime in 1999, wanted to kill Al Kadar to avenge the death of their relative. The clerics said Al Khoei, a longtime rival of Al Sadr, tried to protect Al Kadar from the mob and was shot to death in the melee.

Al Khoei's British and U.S. bodyguards were not in the mosque. A U.S. military force was summoned to the mosque to restore order. But witnesses as well as Iraqi opposition sources said Al Sadr supporters came to the mosque with knives and guns ready to attack Al Khoei. They said Al Khoei had realized the extent of the Iranian threat when he visited Teheran last month and was publicly accused of being a U.S. agent. "There is no doubt that he was targeted for assassination," a Western intelligence source said. "Iran had provided several indications that he was a threat to its interests."

Jawad Khalsy, a Damascus-based Iraqi opposition member, warned that exiled Iraqi opposition figures aligned with the United States could meet a similar fate to that of Al Khoei. "These [killers of Al Khoei] were angry people who were frustrated from [U.S.-led] occupation forces," Khalsy told the Qatar-based A-Jazeera satellite channel. "They [pro-U.S. opposition figures] are not going to be welcomed and will be associated with the invaders."

Al Khoei had long been a gadfly to ruling Iranian clerics. He rejected the concept promoted by the seminary in the Iranian city of Qom that only a cleric can serve as a political leader. The concept is the basis for the Islamic regime in Teheran.

"Iran had been gunning for Al Khoei and was very nervous about what he could do with the Shi'ite community in Iraq," another Western intelligence source who monitors Iraq and Iran said. "I would say Iran has eliminated a major headache."

Al Khoei, who founded the London-based Khoei Foundation, was regarded as a major authority of Shi'ite Islam. He was also the son of Ayatollah Abul Qassim Al Khoei, instrumental in the revolt against Saddam in 1991 and who died a year later under house arrest.

The junior Al Khoei was also an aide of Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, regarded as the leading Shi'ite cleric in Iraq.

Sistani also opposes the Iranian school that Shi'ites must be led by clerics rather than politicians.

U.S. officials and intelligence sources said Iran has sent thousands of agents to Iraq to influence the country's Shi'ites, who form 60 percent of the country's 26 million people. They said the agents have been funneling money to allies in Baghdad and southern Iraq.

The Iranian-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq has threatened to oppose U.S. reconstruction of Iraq. Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr Al Hakim was quoted by the Iranian regime-aligned Jumhurihi Islami daily on Thursday as saying that U.S. reconstruction plans could trigger a civil war in Iraq.

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