Ayatollah's 'suspicious death' prompts Shia leadership battle

THE BATTLE for the leadership of the world's 120 million Shias began in Tehran only hours after the death, at 93, of Abolqassem al-Khoy, the most senior of the grand ayatollahs, in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf.

As well as paying him a rousing tribute, Iran yesterday announced a three-day period of mourning. A delegation representing Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's spiritual leader, requested visas from Iraq for a visit to Najaf.

As messages of condolence from Iranian leaders were read by Tehran Radio, observers noted the absence of the names of some of the most senior surviving Iranian clergymen who could replace Ayatollah Khoy, all of them kept under house arrest by the the present clerical regime. Among them are Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Mohammad Rohani, 78, believed to be Ayatollah Khoy's protege; Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Qomi Tabatabai, 80; and Grand Ayatollah Hosseinali Montazeri, 68, the former heir to the Iranian 'throne of turban'.

Religious sources in Tehran, Paris and London say that while the Iranian regime would prefer the supreme religious leadership role to go to either Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Mohammad Araki, 85, or Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Golpayegani, 92, many believe that Grand Ayatollah Rohani or even Grand Ayatollah Montazeri have a larger following. Shias, the smaller of the world's two main Islamic groups, live mostly in Iran (92 per cent of the population), Azerbaijan (85 per cent) and Iraq (55 per cent).

The Iraqi News Agency said Iraq had declared three days of mourning and that the ayatollah had been buried yesterday in Najaf, the traditional seat of the Shia leadership, in a ceremony attended by a large crowd. But Iran accused Baghdad of having imposed a curfew and burying the ayatollah under tight security measures for fear that the ceremony might lead to anti-Saddam demonstrations.

Relations have never been good between the Shia hierarchy in Najaf and the Sunni-based, but secular Baath Party that rules over Iraq. In London, the ayatollah's grandson, Yussef al-Khoy, said the circumstances of his death were 'very mysterious . . . suspicious' because he appeared to be recovering well after heart surgery in Baghdad last month.

Mr Khoy said his grandfather had spent the past year and a half under house arrest, adding that more than 100 of his staff members and relatives taken with him after the Shia uprising in March 1991 never returned.