Final sermon cost Shia cleric his life

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A WEEK before gunmen killed Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, the most popular leader of the Iraqi Shia Muslims, and his two sons, he had challenged the government by demanding the release of more than a hundred clergy.

A tape of the last sermon of Ayatollah Sadr smuggled out of Iraq and obtained by The Independent shows why President Saddam Hussein may have had him killed. As the ayatollah speaks in a mosque in the holy city of Kufa, worshippers can be heard roaring approval as he tells them: "We demand the release of all prisoners [from the clergy] immediately."

Ayatollah Sadr, whom the government in Baghdad long tried to co-opt, had raised a long-standing grievance of the Iraqi Shias. At the end of the uprising in southern Iraq that followed the Gulf War in 1991, 106 of their clergy were arrested and have not been seen since. Many Shias believe they are alive, but kept in underground cells.

The demand to free the clergy was open defiance. More than 55 per cent of Iraqis belong to the Shia branch of Islam, while the government is dominated by Sunnis, though they make up only one-fifth of the population. A charismatic and popular Shia leader such as Ayatollah Sadr was seen by the government as a threat.

In his final sermon the ayatollah, speaking in the courtyard before the golden dome of the great mosque in Kufa, must have realised the dangers he was courting. Having demanded the release of the clergy, he goes on to make a threat: "If their arrest remains until next Friday, all the Friday prayer leaders in Iraq must tell the people about them and demand their release." The Friday prayer leaders are influential because they lead the whole community from a particular area in worship.

Something of the fervour with which Iraqi Shias regarded Ayatollah Sadr, a scholar and author of more than 15 books, comes over in the smuggled recording of his last words.

Worshippers at the Kufa mosque shout approval when he calls for the release of prisoners. He asks them to chant with him three times: "We want, we want, we want." They chant it nine times and Ayatollah al-Sadr cries out: "Now, now, now."

The answer to Ayatollah Sadr's demand was not slow in coming. His sermon was delivered on 12 February. His threat was that religious leaders would start demanding information about the disappeared clerics on 19 February. On that day he left his office outside Najaf, a city near Kufa, to drive home with his sons, Mustapha and Muammal. As the car entered a roundabout on the main road it was hit by machine-gun fire and within seconds the men were all dead or dying.

The extent of Ayatollah Sadr's influence was shown by the reaction to his death among Iraqis. In Saddam City, the great working-class Shia district of Baghdad, there was a spontaneous demonstration outside a mosque, which security forces dispersed by firing at the protesters.

Najaf was sealed off by Republican Guard troops. When people gathered at a small Shia shrine near the Euphrates town of Nassariyah, they were bombarded with artillery and five were killed.

Did Ayatollah Sadr know he was going to die? The government had promoted him in 1992 because he was an Arab and many of the senior Shia clergy in Iraq are of Iranian extraction. They hoped he would be malleable. He trained clergy and appointed prayer leaders in 100 towns and cities. The heads of tribes came to him to have their leadership endorsed. He asked them to follow Islamic law. He appointed judges and asked the faithful to go to them and not to civil courts.

But from early last year he became increasingly independent. He restarted Friday prayers as the prayers of the entire community. The government was more flexible than in the past because it wanted to unite all Iraqis against the US and sanctions.

It must have been shocked by Ayatollah Sadr's surging popularity. Videos of him addressing the faithful before the great mosque in Kufa show congregations of tens of thousands in the courtyard.

He tried to revive the 50-mile walk between the holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala, which house the tomb shrines of the Shia martyrs slain in the 7th century, and banned by President Saddam for 20 years.

A month ago Ayatollah Sadr was reportedly visited by Mohammed Hamza al-Zubeidi, the Iraqi super-governor of the mid-Euphrates region. He was warned to cease his criticism.

When he gave a sermon soon afterwards he wore a shroud. He made a thinly veiled accusation against the government that it was denying Muslims the right to worship and perform their rituals. He criticised the decision to ban the Najaf-Kerbala march.

He told a story of how in the 9th century a caliph had ordered that the hand of anyone who came to pray at the Shia shrine at Kerbala should be hacked off. He said a man who lost both hands still returned to pray. The Shia faithful understood he was comparing the caliph to President Saddam.