212TH MASH NEAR NAJAF, Iraq—The Ayatollah Abdul Majid al Khoei, a prominent Iraqi Shiite Muslim cleric, came home to Iraq with $3 million from the U.S. Government, a Thuraya satellite phone from U.S. Army intelligence and America's hopes for negotiating a smooth transition from dictatorship toward democracy.
At 9 p.m. on Wednesday night, al Khoei and 24 other Iraqi Shiite leaders met at the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, one of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines, to discuss the future of their country and to address a crowd of Iraqis about their plans to reconstruct Iraqi society. They had been handing out money to help win support for five days.
U.S. Army intelligence officers had given each of the 25 leaders Thuraya satellite phones and assured them that if there was trouble, simply turning on the phones would tell soldiers where they were and just pushing a button would alert them to come to their rescue.
Trouble started soon after the 25 Iraqi leaders arrived at the mosque. Someone in the crowd gathered in the courtyard yelled that one of the 25 was a loyal Baath Party supporter of Saddam Hussein. Others yelled that Baathist soldiers were in the crowd, wearing civilian clothes.
Suddenly there were explosions and guns were turned on the 25 Shiite clerics.
The 25 holy men escaped into a small room inside the mosque and locked the door, but the crowd shot through it. One bullet hit al Khoei in the hand and blew off four of his fingers.
"We had our Thuraya phones and were frantically pushing the buttons for more than an hour, but no one came to help us," said a tribal leader from the southern Iraqi city of Samawah who was wounded in the attack and described the ordeal in an interview with Knight Ridder.
The clerics yelled to the crowd from behind the locked door that they were their friends and wanted to help them.
The Samawah leader told the mob: "There are four ships coming with food. We are not the people you want to kill!"
Someone outside yelled: "You're with Saddam!"
Someone else yelled: "Saddam's soldiers are out here. It is a trick by them!"
The mob kicked down the door and began dragging the clerics out, beating and stabbing them.
The Samawah leader said he saw al Khoei go down outside the mosque.
"They were kicking him in the head and stabbing him."
"I thought we were all going to die, and the future of our country with us," said the tribal leader from his cot at an Army mobile hospital near Najaf, where he was recovering from multiple 3- to 4-inch slices to his forehead and the top of his head.
Al Khoei was hacked to death, but the tribal leader said he did not know how many others died.
The Samawah leader, in his 40s and a few years older than al Khoei, wrenched himself away from his captors. Someone led him to a side street and hid him in a house. He lay there bleeding for hours, until the crowd dispersed. Then the people in the house drove him to a U.S. Army checkpoint in Najaf.
He showed the American soldiers a photo ID and the $18,000 of the $3 million in American cash he had under his robes, and told them he was "an American agent from Iraq."
"I told them how to check my story and they did," he said. "The calls went all the way to Washington, D.C."
U.S. soldiers brought the bleeding Iraqi leader to the 212th MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) after dark on Thursday. At daylight on Friday, his face was black and blue and swollen, and he had more than 50 stitches in his head.
Friday at noon, the U.S. Air Force airlifted the Samawah tribal leader, who asked that his name not be used for fear of repercussions, out of the country.
Just before his stretcher was put on the Air Force C-130, he turned to the MASH translator and lamented in Arabic: "How could this happen to us? No one is safe here. We are turning into animals."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.