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April 13, 2003
 
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Armed Groups Order Shi'ite Leader to Quit Iraq

Reuters


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By Mehrdad Balali and Esmat Salaheddin

KUWAIT (Reuters) - Armed radical groups have surrounded the house of Iraq's top Shi'ite Muslim cleric in the holy city of Najaf, giving him 48 hours to leave the country, aides to the cleric said on Sunday.

"Armed thugs and hooligans have had the house of (Grand) Ayatollah (Ali) Sistani under siege since yesterday. They have told him to either leave Iraq in 48 hours or they would attack," Kuwait-based Ayatollah Abulqasim Dibaji told Reuters.

Abed al-Budairi, an aide to senior cleric Abdul Majid al-Khoei, who was murdered in Najaf on Thursday, told Reuters on Sunday that Sistani had left his Najaf home before it was surrounded, but his son was in the building.

"The ayatollah has been whisked away and has been taken to a secret house, but his son is in the house," he said, adding the groups surrounding the house "have knives, weapons, guns."

Najaf is a holy Shi'ite city in central Iraq where Sistani and many other spiritual leaders live. It is a key center of Shi'ite pilgrimage and religious learning, and contains the tomb of Imam Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed.

"This is the biggest catastrophe. Total terror reigns in Najaf," said Dibaji. "Najaf is a main center of learning, like Oxford in England. It has more than 1,000 years of history."

Dibaji said the house was surrounded by members of Jimaat-e-Sadr-Thani, a splinter group led by Moqtada Sadr, the 22-year-old son of a late spiritual leader in Iraq.

"Moqtada wants to take total control of the holy sites in Iraq," Dibaji said.

Senior Shi'ite leaders have blamed Jimaat-e-Sadr-Thani for orchestrating Thursday's killing of Khoei, who was hacked to death by a mob at the gold-domed Imam Ali Shrine just days after returning from exile in London to help Iraq make the transition to democracy. Another cleric was also killed in that attack.

Budairi said he believed Sistani had been targeted because he was Iranian-born, and the radical groups opposed to him wanted an Iraqi as the country's spiritual leader.

"They went to his house and told him to leave Najaf because he is not Arab. He (Moqtada) is young, he is immature, he is against Iranian ayatollahs, and he wants the grand Maarja (top Shi'ite spiritual leader) to be Iraqi," he said.

He said other ayatollahs had also been told to leave Najaf.

POWER STRUGGLE

Friends and relatives say Khoei was the victim of a power struggle among Shi'ite groups for control of Najaf, a city of some 500,000 people 160 km (100 miles) south of Baghdad.

"Khoei was very well connected and resourceful, and from a respectable family. His presence would have tilted the balance of power in Najaf. Many people felt threatened by him," Mohammad Baqir Mohri, a Shi'ite cleric and scholar said on Saturday.

"Moqtada and his group killed him because they want to control Najaf and the holy shrine, which will be the core of the Shi'ite world in free Iraq," he added.

The Iran-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) has condemned Khoei's murder and urged Iraqis in a statement on Saturday to "refrain from taking revenge against each other," Iran's news agency IRNA said.

Khoei, the son of Ayatollah Seyyid Abdulqasim Musawi al-Khoei, who died under arrest in the early 1990s, ran a multinational Muslim charity foundation from London.

He was seen as a rising star in post-Saddam Iraq, but some criticized his close links to the United States.

Moqtada is the son of Mohammed Sadeq Sadr, a Shi'ite Muslim spiritual leader killed along with his two other sons in 1999. Their deaths are widely blamed on the Iraqi secret service.

After the death of his relatives, Moqtada took his fight against Saddam underground, attracting a large following of religious activists from poverty-stricken areas. His group resurfaced after U.S.-led forces captured Najaf on April 4.

At one point, U.S. troops were forced to retreat in Najaf after crowds blocked their path, thinking the soldiers planned to enter the Imam Ali Shrine. Aware of sensitivities in the holy center, U.S. troops have kept a distance around Najaf.

Hamzah Hosseini, a Shi'ite activist, said the current chaos was likely to lead to more bloodshed.

"The oppression of the past decades has left a spiritual void in Iraqi holy cities. It has left the people completely disoriented."

Copyright 2003 Reuters News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

 
 
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