Saddam turns on his holy enemies

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ON THE NIGHT of 18 June, Ayatollah Mirza Ali al-Gharavi, a spiritual leader of the Iraqi Shia Muslims, failed to return to his home in Najaf in western Iraq from a visit to the tomb-shrine in the holy city of Kerbala. His son became worried. He drove to Kerbala 60 miles to the north. Approaching the city he saw a bullet- riddled car beside the road. Inside were the bodies of his father, brother-in- law and their driver.

"The bodies were washed and buried immediately," says an Iraqi who is conversant with the case. "The police were not interested in an autopsy, blood samples, investigating the time of death or anything else."

There was no mention of Ayatollah Gharavi's murder in the Iraqi press or on television. When his death was finally confirmed in Baghdad on Saturday the Ministry of Religious Affairs blamed it on "malicious foreign-based elements".

It was the third such murder of a senior Shia Muslim cleric opposed to the government in Iraq in four years. Two months ago Ayatollah Murtadha Borujerdi was shot dead by an assassin as he walked to his home in Najaf on the evening of 21 April after praying in the shrine of Imam Ali, whose golden dome and minarets rise above the roofs of the holy city.

Four years ago, in 1994, in the first of this string of murders, Sayid Mohammed Taqi al-Khoie, died in a car crash in similar circumstances to Gharavi. He also was returning to Najaf from the shrine at Kerbala when his car crashed into a truck just outside a large tyre factory. He was killed with three companions. Witnesses say the driver of the lorry had been waiting for him and pulled out into the road at the last minute. They add that the police would not allow the injured to be taken to hospital for hours.

Iraqi Shia leaders abroad say Iraqi security arranged the murders with the aim of taking over the leadership of Shia mosques and shrines. More than half the Iraqi population are Shia Muslim, while the government of Saddam Hussein is predominantly Sunni Muslim, whose adherents make up a quarter of the population. The government in Baghdad sees the Shia leadership as a potentially dangerous form of competition.

"Our institutions are based on popular support," says Yusuf al-Khoie of the al-Khoie Foundation, a charitable organisation in London. "They are funded by the people through religious dues and they have international support." He says that Iraqi government-backed clergy have not been able to get people to come to their mosques.

The struggle between Shia and Sunni Muslims has been at the heart of Iraqi politics since Britain decided to create one country out of three Turkish provinces in the Mesopotamian plain in 1920. Captain Arnold Wilson, the senior British civilian official in Baghdad at the time, warned that the Shia majority would not accept the rule of the Sunni minority, but "no form of government has yet been envisaged which does not involve Sunni domination."

Control of the holy cities of Kerbala, Najaf and Kufa, between the desert and the Euphrates south west of Baghdad, is important for the government. Not only were they at the heart of the uprising which engulfed southern Iraq in 1991 in the wake of the Gulf war, but they are revered by 130 million Shia Muslims across the world as the site of the events which are at the centre of the Shia faith.

It was in Kufa in 661AD that Ali, the son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet Mohammed, was assassinated. He was later buried in Najaf. Nineteen years later his sons, Hussein and Abbas, were massacred at Kerbala with 72 companions in a battle whose elements of betrayal, sacrifice, martyrdom and atonement are similar to Christian beliefs about the Crucifixion. Pilgrims from across the Islamic world have visited all three cities for a thousand years.

Since the 1970s the ruling Baath party in Baghdad, Sunni, secular and nationalist, has tried to suppress Shia practices. Shia clerics were executed and celebration of Ashura, the ritual mourning for the death of Hussein, was banned. Since the brutal suppression of the uprising of 1991 even secular Shia in Iraq increasingly identify with their religious faith.

The struggle which followed the uprising, in which many Shia mosques and schools were demolished, has revolved around the government's efforts to put its own quisling clergy in positions of authority. In particular it wanted its own candidate to replace Grand Ayatollah al-Khoie, the 92- year-old Shia cleric, who had held the position of Marja, the Shiah equivalent of Pope, until he died in 1992.

The government tried to install its own candidate as Grand Marja, but without success. The official clergy were regarded as quislings by the Shia faithful, who refused to accept them as prayer leaders. Instead Ayatollah Ali Seestani took over and led the prayers inside the al-Khadra or Green Mosque where al-Khoie is buried in the shrine at Najaf.

In the spring of 1994 the government seemed to change its policy. It permanently closed the al-Khadra mosque for repairs - although nothing was wrong with it. It may also have covertly adopted a policy of sending death squads to eliminate senior Shia clerics. Government officials warned Borujerdi and Gharavi against leading prayers before they died.

Ali Seestani, now the leading Shia cleric in Najaf, is under house arrest. His followers fear he may be the next to die. But an assassination campaign against leaders of a faith which so venerates martyrdom is unlikely to succeed.