Death in the temple

The liberal cleric Sayed Abdul Majid al-Khoei was the only person who could have bridged the deep divisions in Iraq's Shia community. But last month he was brutally murdered. Patrick Cockburn goes on the trail of those responsible

Wednesday 15 January 2014 02:35

Soon after the call for noon prayers rang out over the holy city of Najaf on 10 April, Sayed Abdul Majid al-Khoei, a Shia Muslim cleric, was shot and hacked to death within sight of the great Imam Ali shrine, whose golden dome rises above the closely packed streets.

Al-Khoei was the most liberal and sophisticated of Shia clerical leaders. Born in 1962 into a revered religious family, he had just returned to Iraq after 12 years in exile in London, where he fled for his life after Saddam Hussein crushed the great Shia uprising that erupted after the 1991 Gulf War.

The news of the murder was overshadowed by the collapse of Saddam's regime. But the death of al-Khoei robbed the Shia community, to which 60 per cent of Iraqis belong, of a leader who believed that he knew how to end the centuries-old political marginalisation of the Shia in Iraq.

It is ironic that al-Khoei, who had seen family and friends persecuted, imprisoned and murdered by Saddam, should have died at the hands of a Shia mob, at the very moment that his enemy was overthrown. One of al-Khoei's brothers had disappeared, almost certainly executed, in 1991, and another died in a car crash arranged by the Iraqi security services three years later.

After the killing, there were confused accounts of how and why Al-Khoei had died. It was reported that he had not been the real target, but had died because he was accompanying Haidar Rufaie al-Killidar, the hereditary custodian of the Imam Ali shrine, who was hated by many in Najaf as a collaborator with Saddam's regime.

It is more likely that al-Khoei's death was a carefully-planned assassination. The Independent has interviewed three people who were with him when he was attacked, and who only just escaped with their lives. They all believe that Muqtada al-Sadr, a young, powerful Shia leader, feared al-Khoei's growing influence and orchestrated the attack, a claim al-Sadr denies. (Others have said al-Khoei was murdered by Iranian agents.) When al-Khoei was brought bleeding to the door of Muqtada's house in Najaf, he was turned away.

Al-Khoei has been described by the US press as "pro-American", but this is a distortion. He believed that the US was the only power that could overthrow Saddam and that, if the Shia rejected an American occupation out of hand, they could find themselves once more excluded from power. He thought the Shia had made this mistake after Britain captured Baghdad in 1917 and allowed the Sunni Muslim establishment to rule the country under the British as they had under the Ottomans.

Al-Khoei was determined that this should not happen again. He wanted the Shia to keep on good terms with the Americans and the Sunni. In the week before he was killed, he suggested that the Sunni should be allowed to open religious schools even in Shia strongholds such as Najaf. In keeping with the religious traditions of the Iraqi Shia – very different from those of Iran – he opposed the takeover of the state by Islamic clergy.

In the days since al-Khoei died, some of his premonitions have begun to come true. The US is deeply uncomfortable with developments in the Shia community. It fears the growing power of its Islamic clergy and radical street leaders, and the influence of Shia Iran. Despite the American rhetoric about democracy and eliminating the legacy of Saddam, Washington is already showing signs of trying to rule Iraq by turning to Saddam's Sunni-dominated security and bureaucratic apparatus, cosmetically shorn of a few senior Baathist officials.

The day he died, al-Khoei had gone to pray at the Imam Ali shrine at about 8.45am. One of the last photographs taken of him shows him sitting in the smart-looking office of the custodian of the shrine. Above al-Khoei, the obligatory picture of Saddam Hussein has already been replaced by one of a Shia martyr. He is smiling gently but confidently at his companions, some of whom had also returned from exile.

Al-Khoei had flown back to Iraq on a US plane on 1 April, landing at Nasiriyah, a dusty city on the Euphrates devastated by heavy fighting. The road north to Najaf was deemed unsafe and he was taken in a US helicopter to the city, but on his arrival he refused further American protection.

"People in Najaf were amazed to see him," says Ma'ad Fayad, an Iraqi journalist and friend of al-Khoei. "Some abandoned their cars in the middle of the street so they could greet him." But there was also an undercurrent of tension. Fayad heard people ask: "Who is this coming from London?" Most Iraqis regard returning exiles with suspicion, convinced that they automatically want to become leaders in Iraq after living in luxury abroad, supported by foreign intelligence services.

Abdul Mohsin al-Kafaji, a former colonel in the Iraqi army who joined the Shia uprising in 1991 and later become a close aide to al-Khoei, admits that at first people in Najaf were nervous at seeing them. "They were frightened that Saddam might come back and said, 'Maybe the same thing will happen as in 1991.' But day by day the number of people coming to the shrine with us increased."

Al-Khoei told people not to resist the Americans and distributed $350,000 (£220,000) to the poor of Najaf. His staff deny a report that he had received $13m from the US and say the money came from the Al-Khoei Foundation, a charitable institution he ran, funded by wealthy Shia abroad.

On the morning of 10 April, al-Khoei took a dangerous step as part of his campaign of reconciliation between different factions in Najaf. He went to the house of Haidar al-Rufaie al-Killidar and asked him to come with him to the shrine. Haidar was not popular in Najaf, where his family had for centuries been the hereditary custodians of the shrine of Imam Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, murdered in 680 and venerated by Shias.

This was not an easy job. Radwan Hussein al-Rufaie, a cousin of Haidar, said: "I turned it down because I was against the regime and my brother took over, but he disappeared in 1991, accused of plotting against Saddam. Haidar, on the other hand, was seen as completely affiliated with the government. He appeared on television talking with Saddam Hussein and was a member of the Iraqi parliament."

Haidar had sensibly not been to his office since the war began. But, looking nervous, he agreed to return there with al-Khoei. A friendly crowd greeted them as they walked through the great gates of the shrine complex, walked across a courtyard and prayed by the shrine itself.

An hour later, as the group sat in the custodian's office, there were the first signs of hostility. As the crowd outside swelled, there were shouts of "Long life to al-Sadr" and "Give us Haidar or we will kill you." A few moments later the window was smashed.

Supporters of al-Khoei who were trapped in the office are convinced that what followed was organised by al-Sadr, the radical Shia leader whose father, a charismatic Shia leader, was assassinated on Saddam's orders in 1999. His death provoked rioting, which was savagely repressed.

At first al-Khoei tried to calm the crowd, which by now numbered about 400, many of them supporters of al-Sadr, but the microphone did not work. One man lunged at him with a knife as he stood at the door of the custodian's office and he jumped back. Al-Kafaji says the first shot was fired into the air by Maher al-Naseri, a cleric from Detroit, where there is a large Iraqi community. "He became frightened and fired a shot. Many in the crowd ran away, but only to get their own guns." There were two Kalashnikovs and two pistols in Haidar's office. The clergy began to shoot back. In the exchange of fire, al-Naseri was mortally wounded. Al-Khoei took off his turban and held it on his chest, shouting: "Don't shoot! This young man is dying! He is a Shia! He is a Muslim!"

Jabar Khanee Jaafer, the deputy custodian, who was also shot, was later quoted as saying: "I saw who did the shooting and the stabbing. The people who work with al-Sadr are responsible for these murders."

The shooting went on for 90 minutes. Ma'ad Fayad, who fired a pistol at somebody trying to get through the door, recalls: "Somebody threw a grenade. I heard Sayed Majid [al-Khoei] call out, 'I am hurt.'" One of his fingers had been blown off and another was dangling by a piece of skin. Fayad tried to staunch the bleeding with a towel.

The siege ended when al-Khoei's group ran out of ammunition and one man went outside with a white shirt and a Koran to surrender. Some of the crowd entered the office and tied the hands of those inside behind their backs. Shaikh Salah Bilal, one of those captured, says he was told by one of the men: "We are taking you to Muqtada al-Sadr for him to pass sentence." The prisoners were then taken out of the office. Ma'ad Fayad recalls: "The first thing I saw was swords and knives flashing in the sun. I thought, 'Oh my God, that's it.'" Within moments he saw Haidar al-Rufaie stabbed to death and al-Khoei repeatedly stabbed.

Muqtada's house was a few hundred yards away. Al-Khoei slumped by the door. "Most of his body was bleeding and he lay down on one side," says Shaikh Salah. "I put his head on my leg." After some minutes, he says, a message came from al-Sadr: "Don't let them sit in front of my door."

They took refuge in a shop, where their hands were untied. The owner of the shop tried to save them by telling the crowd outside that al-Khoei was dead. It did not work; after some minutes he was dragged out of the shop and shot at the end of the street. According to one source, al-Khoei's body was dragged behind a car before it was returned to his relatives for burial.

The savagery of his own death matched al-Khoei's worst expectations. Martyrdom and endurance in the face of terrible suffering are at the heart of the Shia view of the world. Saddam Hussein never quite overcame their resistance, but the killings in the shadow of the Imam Ali mosque show the depth of the divisions within the Shia community in Iraq, and the difficulty it will have in taking and keeping power.

The writer is the co-author with Andrew Cockburn of 'Saddam Hussein: An American Obsession', published by Verso, priced £9

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