Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev

Chechen separatist leader
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The Independent Online

Abdul-Khalim Abu-Salamovich Sadulayev, cleric and politician: born Argun, Soviet Union 1967; rebel president of Chechnya 2005-06; married; died Argun 17 June 2006.

The lifespan of successive leaders of Chechnya's separatist rebels is growing ever shorter. Chosen in 2002 by Aslan Maskhadov to succeed him as president of the self-proclaimed Republic of Ichkeria in case of his death or kidnapping by Russian forces, Abdul- Khalim Sadulayev did not have long to wait. Russian forces killed Maskhadov in March 2005 and Sadulayev stepped from obscurity into the limelight.

But like Maskhadov, he was killed in a fire-fight, both allegedly found after a traitor in their ranks betrayed them for cash (reportedly £30 in Sadulayev's case). The first two presidents - Dzhokhar Dudayev and Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev - had also been killed, as had Russia's own presidential nominee, the widely hated Akhmad Kadyrov.

Sadulayev - who had run Chechnya's Supreme Sharia Court since 2002 - was known mostly as an advocate of imposing Islam in a form alien to the region. Before the attempted break with Russia, sharia law was unknown (customary law prevailed). Drinking remains rife, women do not normally wear veils and men may take up to seven wives (not four as traditional Islam maintains). Sufism is a powerful force.

But Sadulayev - one of the rare Chechens to know Arabic - frowned on all this. He also condemned hostage-taking, a popular local way of raising money, but a risky undertaking in a land where blood-feuds are common and life is cheap (though Russian sources insist he was behind the 2001 kidnapping of the Médicins sans Frontières aid worker Kenneth Gluck, who was soon released unharmed).

Sadulayev's decrees as president were regularly couched in religious tones. Last year he even sent the Vatican a telegram expressing condolences over the death of Pope John Paul II, calling the late pope an inspiring peacemaker. But few believed Sadulayev was a powerful force within the rebel movement, which remains dominated by the last widely-known, charismatic leader still at large, Shamil Basayev, a fighter Russia would love to kill.

Sadulayev was born into the Ustradoi teip, an influential clan in the town of Argun on the plains of central Chechnya to the east of Grozny. After growing up in Argun, he entered Chechnya's university to study philology, but had to break off his studies as war with Russia broke out in 1994. He fought against the Russians in local Argun formations.

He also studied Islam under local Islamic theologians and from 1996 began what would become regular appearances on Chechen television speaking about Islam. He lectured across Chechnya and led Argun's Muslim community, for a while as the town's imam. Sadulayev made the haj pilgrimage to Mecca, the only time he is known to have left his homeland.

These were the heady days of de facto independence, when Russia held off from crushing the rebel republic. All this changed in 1999 when Vladimir Putin, by now in charge, launched a new and decisive war to crush the rebels.

In 1999, Maskhadov appointed Sadulayev to a commission for constitutional sharia reform, a commission then headed by Kadyrov, who would later reject the rebels, embrace Moscow and be blown up by the rebels in Grozny. Sadulayev again returned to fighting with the Argun-based rebels.

Sadulayev knew the sufferings his people were going through. His wife was said to have been seized by the Russian FSB (the domestic intelligence service) in 2003 and killed when attempts to buy her back failed. Yet in the misery of today's Chechnya, squeezed between a brutal pro-Russian administration and gangs of ruthless rebels-cum-bandits, the population is worn out by the grind of war and many have reluctantly accepted the pro-Russian regime.

Sadulayev was no Maskhadov - an inspiring and cool tactician, even if he lacked a clear strategy to help his fellow-Chechens. Nor was he a Basayev - a charismatic and bold rebel. Sadulayev's brand of Islam - influenced by the Arabs who came to join the jihad against the infidel Russians - may have been alien, but most Chechens probably saw him as an irrelevance, his decrees confined to the websites where they were published.

Sadulayev had little fear of death. "There was someone [to command] before me," he told the Bulgarian paper Politika just weeks ago. "And if, through the will of Allah, I meet my death, there is someone to continue this task even better."

Felix Corley