Mosque custodian gives account of Shiite cleric's assassination

NAJAF, Iraq—The murder of a pro-Western cleric in this holy city two weeks ago removed America's most promising Shiite Muslim ally and now threatens to fracture Iraq's Shiite majority into warring factions.

As accusations reverberate over who was behind the violence, a senior religious authority of the Grand Imam Ali Mosque, where Shiite leader Abdul Majid al Khoei was killed on April 10, said the murderers were followers of Moqtada al Sadr, a fiery young Shiite cleric.

Jabar Khanee Jaafer, the mosque's deputy custodian, described the murder in an exclusive and emotional interview with a Knight Ridder reporter on Friday while in hiding outside of Najaf.

"I saw who did the shooting and the stabbing. I saw who yelled `kill them' and threw the grenades," he said. "The people who work with Sadr are responsible for these murders."

Sadr, the youngest son of a Shiite grand ayatollah who was executed by Saddam Hussein's regime four years ago, denied being a killer at Friday prayers and implored 20,000 of his followers to march for justice. "They say we did a lot of wrong, but that is untrue," he said from the front of Najaf's Kufa Mosque.

It was impossible to verify either of the conflicting reports.

Khoei had returned to Iraq with $13 million from the U.S. government, and had gone to the mosque on the night he was killed with 24 other Iraqi Shiite leaders to discuss the country's future. His death, which a senior administration official in Washington called "the worst blow we've suffered in Iraq," dashed American hopes that Khoei would help unite Iraq's long-repressed Shiites behind a democratic government.

Sadr's supporters want American troops out of Iraq and want Shiite leaders to take a forceful role in running the country. Shiites make up more than 60 percent of Iraq's population and will play a central role in its future government.

Since the murder two weeks ago, Sadr has faced a barrage of anonymous accusations, but Jaafer is the first person to publicly accuse him.

"I am ready to die if this is what it takes to get the truth out to the world," said Jaafer, who was shot in the shoulder during the attack at the mosque in which Khoei was shot, stabbed and hacked to death along with at least two others.

In the past few days, two lists of suspects in the murders of Khoei; Maher al Yaseri, a member of a Shiite group helping American forces; and Haider Rofaee, the shrine's custodian, have surfaced. Najaf's mayor signed one list. Several witnesses to the murder, including Jaafer, put together the second list.

Some names appear on both lists, including brothers Abbas and Mahar Ali al Baghdadai, both in their early 20s. A spokesman for Sadr confirmed that the men named on the list, including the Baghdadai brothers, are followers of Sadr.

Jaafer, who said he was standing between Khoei and Rofaee in the mosque's great hall, offered a detailed account of the mob violence at the shrine, the holiest of Shiite sites. It is said to mark the spot where the Prophet Muhammad's son-in-law, a revered figure among Shiites, was murdered 1,300 years ago in a battle for control of Islam.

"One brother had a knife and was stabbing Khoei, and the other had a sword and was hacking at him," said Jaafer, who wore the same green and burgundy cap he had on when his three friends were killed. It was spattered with dried blood.

But the mother of the accused brothers came to the rusty iron front door of their adobe home to defend them. "My sons are not killers," she said. "They have been framed by a local religious leader who needs scapegoats for what he has done."

She refused to identify the religious leader.

The trouble started, according to Jaafer, when someone in the crowd accused Yaseri of being a CIA agent and someone else accused Rofaee of being a Saddam Hussein loyalist.

"It rained bullets," he said. "We could see through a very large glass window who was shooting and throwing grenades and who had knives and swords."

Jaafer said Rofaee was shot in the abdomen, Khoei's fingers were shot off and Yaseri was shot below his flack jacket.

Khoei's group had two AK-47 rifles and two pistols, Jaafer said. They also had satellite phones given to them by U.S. Army intelligence officers to use if they got into trouble. They tried to call the American troops, to no avail. Jaafer said he gave his pistol to Khoei, who shot in the air and yelled that no one should be killed.

Another eyewitness, a 26-year-old seminary student who supports Sadr, said Sadr rushed to stop the attacks. The student, who said he was too afraid to be identified, reported that Sadr ordered a top aide, Riyadh al Noori, to grab a megaphone and tell the mob to disperse.

"No one listened," he said.

The student said the mob pushed Noori back and struck another Sadr aide.

He said the crowd wanted to kill members of Saddam Hussein's ruling Baath Party. "The crowd was shouting, `Kill the Baathists, kill the Baathists'," he said.

Jaafer, however, insisted that Noori stripped him, robbed Khoei and Rofaee of their phones and money and forced them out of their religious robes and into Western-style trousers.

He said Noori told them they would be taken to Sadr's office 300 feet from the shrine for "negotiations" over their alleged alliance with the CIA and with Baath Party agents.

Jaafer said he slipped out of his wire manacles and escaped.

The next day, the bodies of Khoei, Rofaee and Yaseri were found in Najaf's main cemetery.

"I have hardly eaten or slept since the murder," Jaafer said. "I will not rest until the blame is placed where it belongs—on Sadr and his workers."


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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-ASSASSINATION