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Muslim leaders held captive, face death unless they flee Iraq

TEHRAN, Iran—Armed Iraqis have surrounded the homes of a leading Shiite Muslim cleric and two other spiritual leaders in the central Iraqi city of Najaf, and are threatening to kill the men on Monday unless they cede power or leave the country, religious officials here said.

The attackers are said to be followers of a rival Iraqi cleric seeking to control the historical center of the minority Muslim sect, whose followers make up approximately 60 percent of Iraq's population. The same group is accused of fatally stabbing pro-Western Shiite cleric Abdul Majid al Khoei and at least three others last week in Najaf in what has been described as a bid to control the holiest Shiite shrine.

So far, the clerics have not responded to their attackers' demands.

Reached in London, al Khoei's nephew, Jawad al Khoei, said Sunday that he contacted United Nations and U.S. officials and demanded they intervene before any more blood is shed. The Khoeis are allied with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, one of the sect's leaders. It's not clear if Sistani is inside one of the houses under siege.

"Toppling Saddam was unimportant compared to the need for establishing security in Najaf," Jawad al Khoei said.

Sistani's office in Iran's holy city of Qom issued a written statement Sunday night warning that responsibility to end the siege, which began Saturday, lay with the U.S.-led coalition. "The holy city of Najaf is in the midst of chaos, a chaos that has no religious or historical justification," the statement warned. "The holy shrines and the life of the Marajeh (religious authorities) are in serious danger."

In Beirut, another top Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlullah, this weekend issued a fatwa, or religious decree, calling for Shiites to use any means to defend Sistani. Fadlullah is considered the spiritual leader of Lebanon's Shiites, and he once had ties to Hezbollah, the militant Islamic group that fought Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon.

U.S. troops stationed on the outskirts of Najaf have reportedly moved into the city to restore order.

The two other clerics under siege in Najaf are a nephew of exiled Iraqi Shiite opposition leader Ayatollah Mohammed Baqr al Hakim, who heads the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which is headquartered in Tehran; and Sheikh Ishaq Fayaz, a religious leader from Afghanistan.

The 600 or more armed Iraqis who have cornered the clerics and taken over the Grand Imam Ali Mosque, the holiest Shiite shrine, where al Khoei was killed on Thursday, are believed to be part of a shadowy group called Jimaat-e-Sadr-Thani. The group is led by Moqtada al Sadr, the 22-year-old son of the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al Sadr, a prominent cleric who was assassinated by Saddam Hussein's regime in 1999.

Moqtada al Sadr has no offices in Iran and his whereabouts in Iraq are unknown. But an ally of his in Qom, Mohammed Hossein Haeri, on Sunday denied the young cleric was involved in either the al Khoei attack or ongoing siege.

"It's not his fault, maybe it's the Americans or British," Haeri said Sunday night.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.