Baghdad riots over killing of Ayatollah

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SERIOUS RIOTING broke out in Baghdad yesterday as news spread of the assassination, probably by government agents, of a senior cleric of the Shia Muslim sect to which most Iraqis belong.

Iraqi security forces killed or wounded several demonstrators in Saddam City, a vast, working-class suburb, after a demonstration outside a mosque, according to eye witnesses. It is the first such outbreak in the Iraqi capital for many years.

The disturbances followed the assassination Friday of Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, the leader of a strong popular movement. The Iraqi news agency confirmed that the Ayatollah died with his two sons, but did not say where.

His killing is the latest in a series of assassinations and attacks on senior Shia clerics, two of whom were murdered last year. "The government seems to have a policy of eliminating us all," said Yusuf al-Khoie, a member of an important Shia clerical family living in London. "Nobody has been convicted for past murders."

Ayatollah al-Sadr was a rising power in Iraq. He was a student and cousin of Ayatollah Mohammed Baqr al-Sadr, the religious leader of the Shia, who was executed along with his sister by Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader, in 1980. The Shia make up 55 per cent of the Iraqi population, although the government is predominantly drawn from the minority Sunni Muslim sect.

The government originally thought it could control him, but over the last year he appointed his representatives in 100 Shia towns. He did not criticise President Saddam by name, but accused his government of responsibility - along with the US - for the misery of the Iraqi people. In December he called on Iraqis to walk to Kerbala, the holy city of the Shia. Large numbers started to march, but he called them off when troops and security men massed around the city.

Mr al-Khoie said another Ayatollah, Bashir Najafi, was the target of a grenade attack a month ago in which the assassin was killed by the explosion. The government, he added, was eliminating leaders of the Shia clergy because "they are independent and attract the crowd".