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Leading Iraqi Shia dies in 'staged' crash

A MEMBER of the leading Shia religious family has been killed in what Iraqi exiles in London claim was a car crash perpetrated by the Iraqi authorities.

Hojatoleslam Sayyed Muhammad Taghi al-Khoei was travelling home to Najaf, southern Iraq, after a weekly visit to the Shia holy shrine of Kerbala. The car was rammed by a heavy truck and crushed.

The three passengers in the car, including a six-year-old nephew of Khoei and the driver, were killed in the fire that followed.

The area was surrounded by Iraqi troops. Khoei's family in London said the Iraqi authorities insisted the burial took place immediately, without witnesses or proper rituals. Huge crowds would normally be expected to attend the burial of so prominent a figure in the community.

The dead man was son of the late Grand Ayatollah al-Khoei, the leading Shia religious authority in Iraq and much of the Shia world until his death in 1992.

This latest was a death foretold. In 1992 the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Iraq, Max van der Stoel, expressed 'particular concern about the fate of the Grand Ayatollah's son'.

Iraqi Shias in London say the Iraqi authorities have increased their level of harassment of Shia religious leaders and the conduct of Shia rituals in the past few months. They report that the regime has closed down the Khadhra (Green) mosque in Najaf, where the Grand Ayatollah al- Khoei used to lead the congregation. The aim was to cut off the shrine of Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, from the mosque itelf.

Sayyed Muhammad al-Khoei had been threatened, and only last week was twice summoned to the headquarters of the internal security in Baghdad and pressed to leave the country.