Defense Update News Commentary

Saturday, April 12, 2003

Najaf Assassination Signals Start of Shi'ite Power Struggle

Abdul Majid al-Khoei, a revered Muslim cleric and returned exile, was stabbed to death, Thursday April 10, by a furious mob inside Shi'ite's holiest shrine the golden-domed Mosque of Ali in Najaf.
For the world's nearly 120 million Shi'ites, Najaf is the holiest city, after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. It is also the seat of the Shi'ite's spiritual leaders, known as ayatollahs and the center for scientific, literary and theological studies for the Islam world.
The Jimaat-e-Sadr-Thani, a small splinter group led by Moqada Sadr, 22 year old son of the late spiritual leader Sadeq Sadr, who was killed with his two sons in 1999 by the Iraqi secret service, was believed reponsible for the political assassination, which signalled the start of a power struggle between different Shi'ite factions following the departure of the Sunni Ba'ath Party stronghold in the city.
Sayyed Abdul Majid al-Khoei, 41, was the son of the famous Shi'ite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Abdul-Qassim al-Khoei, revered leader of the 1991 Shi'ite uprising, who died in one of Saddam's prisons in 1993.
Khoei, who left Iraq 12 years ago, to form a multi-national Muslim charity organisation and had over the years established close relations with British and US leaders. Abdul Majid al-Khoei had returned to Najaf from his London Exile early April, hoping to restore order in the chaotic Shi'ite south. But he had enemies. Seen as the rising star in post-Saddam Iraq by the Coalition leaders, he was criticised by local leaders as serving foreign interests.
After the death of his relatives, Moqada Sadr formed a clandestine Shi'ite guerilla movement, fighting against the Iraqi forces in the region. With the arrival of the US coalition forces, Moqada's group resurfaced and claimed to fill the power vacuum in Najaf.
Moqada Sadr regarded Khoei's presence as tilting the political balance in the city and thus an immediate threat to his own ambitions. The outcome was inevitable. Khoei became the first victim of the Shi'ite power struggle.
Among the returning exiles, who might well come under threat, is Ahmad Chalabi, a questionable character, with a dubious past of corruption and theft. He is reported to lead a small army of armed followers, which could become involved in the Shi'ite rivalry.
Following the murder, an attempt to calm the tension, Ayatollah Sayyid al-Husseini al-Sistani issued a fatwa instructing the population to remain calm and not interfere with the coalition troops trying to restore order in the chaos. It seems doubtful, however, that the young militants will adhere to this warning. Being over 60% of the Iraqi population, the Shi'ites have been persecuted for decades by the ruling Sunni Ba'ath party officials and
will not easily be persuaded to give up their struggle for their rights.
First, however, their leaders will have to settle their own ambitions for their power base.
With post-Saddam's Iraq rapidly becoming a moral wasteland lack of spiritual guidance and tight control will inevitably lead to more violence and bloodshed among the rival Shi'ite factions.