Shiite cleric killed by mob days after returning to Iraq

NAJAF, Iraq—In the holiest mosque in this sacred Islamic city, an angry mob attacked and killed a pro-Western Shiite cleric Thursday, just days after he returned to the war-torn nation from exile in London to help with reconciliation.

Witnesses said Abdul Majid al Khoei was shot, stabbed and hacked to death in the melee. As many as three others also were killed.

While accounts of the killings were murky late Thursday, the mob apparently was angered over who would get to control the Grand Imam Ali Mosque, a shrine to the Prophet Muhammad's son-in-law, who was murdered on the site 1,300 years ago in a dispute over the direction of Islam.

Khoei had come to Najaf to help restore order and to assist coalition troops in winning support from residents. The U.S. military had hoped to capitalize on Khoei's intercession and had organized a news media outing to Najaf, ferrying in two helicopters full of reporters. None was present at the killings.

In an interview with Knight Ridder just two days before his death, Khoei said he and other religious leaders were negotiating a deal to permit Saddam Hussein's loyalists to leave Najaf in return for safe passage out of the city.

"We will liberate the holy shrine," Khoei said. "You will never see any Americans in the whole town. They are staying out."

Dissidents say Khoei's rapid return to Iraq—he had arrived in Najaf eight days earlier after 12 years in exile in London—as well as strong U.S. backing for him sparked criticism from Shiite dissidents who are eager to wield power in the new Iraq.

Khoei, whose age was varyingly given as 38 and 40, was a key aide to Iraq's leading Shiite leader, Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, who last week urged his followers not to hinder U.S. and British forces. He was also the son of Sistani's predecessor.

An official at the charity foundation that Khoei headed in London said the cleric was helping U.S.-led forces restore order to Najaf. "He wasn't supposed to play an official role, but his duty was to keep the calmness and peace within the community," said the official, Fadhel Milani.

A meeting at the shrine turned violent shortly after Khoei arrived.

The following is an account from witnesses, family and official sources:

On Thursday morning, Khoei and his aides went to the shrine to talk with leading mullahs, or religious teachers, about future control of the shrine, which had been supervised by Haider Roafee, a custodian appointed by Saddam, said Khoei's nephew, Jawad al Khoei, who lives in Iran's holy city of Qom.

Roafee was widely disliked because he was a member of Saddam's Ministry of Religion. But Khoei supported Roafee, arguing that his service to Saddam had been under duress.

Khoei and his aides had just gone into Roafee's office when a small group of Iraqis came into the shrine, chanting the name of an ayatollah murdered by Saddam's regime. The crowd soon swelled to between 200 and 300 people.

Once Khoei and Roafee came out of the office, shots were fired.

According to his nephew, Khoei was shot several times. Roafee was stabbed to death, as were two of Khoei's aides.

The mob then dragged Khoei, still alive, outside to a nearby shop, where they cut off several of his fingers and stabbed him to death, the nephew said.

"My uncle said he knew there was some possibility that he might be killed," the younger Khoei recalled.

In London, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw expressed sadness over the murder.

Khoei "had huge expectations about the future for the Shia people in Iraq post-Saddam and for Muslim people," Straw said. "I'm sure his vision for them will be realized. It is an appalling tragedy he has been killed before he can take part in that process."

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher issued a statement: "We're deeply saddened to see this death. 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 create a situation where Iraqis can express themselves freely, where all points of view can be expressed freely and without intimidation or violence."


(Nelson reported from Tehran, Iran; Laughlin from Najaf, Iraq. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Fawn Vrazo contributed to this report from London.)


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