Shia death blamed on Baghdad

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The Independent Online
THE MURDER of a senior Shia Muslim cleric, Ali al-Gharavi, from the holy city of Najaf in western Iraq, is being blamed on the Iraqi government.

He is the third clergyman to die in what other leaders of the Shia tradition in Islam - which has 130 million followers in the Muslim world - say is a systematic campaign by the Iraqi government to kill off religious leaders it does not control.

Grand Ayatollah Gharavi, 70, died in a hail of bullets last Thursday night along with his son, son-in-law and driver, as he was being driven back to Najaf from the tomb-shrine of Imam Hussein in Kerbala, 60 miles away.

Yusuf al- Khoie, of the al-Khoie Foundation, a Shia charitable organisation in London, said: "Saddam seems intent on eliminating our entire religious leadership. All Gharavi was doing was leading the prayers in Najaf."

In Baghdad, the Ministry of Religious Affairs called the murder "a treacherous crime behind which stand malicious foreign-based elements."

But the Iraqi government is known to regard the Shia clergy with suspicion because some 55 per cent of Iraqis are Shia while the government depends on the quarter of the population, who are Sunni Muslims. The Shia holy cities of Kerbala and Najaf were at the centre of the 1991 revolt in southern Iraq against President Saddam Hussein.

Only two months ago another Shia prayer leader, Ayatollah Murtadha Ali Mohammed Ibrahim Boujerdi, was shot dead in Najaf as he walked home from praying at the shrine where Imam Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, is buried. He had earlier been warned by the Ministry of Religious Affairs not to lead prayers in a popular local mosque.

The Iraqi government's denial of any involvement in the murders were treated with disdain yesterday by other Shia movements in the Islamic world. Hizbollah in Lebanon accused the Iraqi government of "attacking the lives of the nation's scholars and leaders and continuing the criminal course in which the Iraqi regime has a remarkable record".

If the assassination of Ayatollah Gharavi was carried out by the Iraqi security services, it shows the government in Baghdad is confident that it can do what it wants to its opponents without provoking a reaction at home or abroad.

The killing of Gharavi is similar to the death of Mohammed Taqi al- Khoie, another leading cleric. He died on the road between Kerbala and Najaf in 1994 when his car struck a truck. Witnesses said the truck had been waiting for hours and then suddenly pulled out into the road. The police delayed taking the injured to hospital.