Senior Iraqi Shia leader Abdul Majid al-Khoei and an aide were killed by a mob at a mosque in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf on Thursday, the Khoei family foundation said.
Majid was the son of the late Grand Ayatollah al-Khoei, spiritual leader of Iraq's Shia at the time of the 1991 Gulf War. Agencies quoting Al-Khoei's nephew, Jawad al-Khoei, said Abdul Majid was stabbed to death at the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, one of the holiest shrines for Shia Muslims.
The murders are expected to increase tensions among Iraq's majority Shia population.
File photo shows Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair (L) being greeted by Abdul Majid al-Khoei, who was killed by a mob in Najaf on April 10, 2003. Blair was met by senior members of the Muslim community on a visit to the al-Khoei Foundation in North London, in this file picture taken October 25, 2001. REUTERS/David Sandison/POOL
Both grand Ayatullahs Seestani and Sa'eed Al-Hakeem refused to meet Majeed Al-Khoei when he returned to Najaf on 3 April - a snub that may have been intended to underline their disapproval of his close association with the pro US-led forces.
Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, is one of Iraq's most important religious centres. The main mosque contains the tomb of Ali bin Abi Talib, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, the first imam of the Shia.
According to eyewitness accounts, Khoei was at a meeting of leading clerics held at 10am (local time) in Najaf on modalities to control the shrine, which has been under the supervision of Haider al Kadar, widely disliked because of his role as a member of President Saddam Hussein's Ministry of Religion.
In what was seen as a gesture of reconciliation, al Kadar was accompanied to the shrine by Abdul Majid Al Khoei .
When the two men appeared at the shrine, members of another faction loyal to a different cleric, Mohammed Braga al Saddar, verbally assailed them. Apparently feeling threatened, al Khoei is reported to have pulled a gun and fired one or two shots. There are conflicting accounts as to whether he fired the bullets into the air or into the crowd.
Both men were then accosted by the crowd and hacked to death with swords and knives. An unknown number of people were injured. ďAl Kadar was an animal,'' said Adil Adnan al-Moussawi, 25, who witnessed the confrontation. ``The people were shouting they hate him, he should not be here.''
Al-Khoei is among the prominent US-backed exiles who returned to Iraq as the US-led forces extended their hold over the country. He had said then that local clerics were attempting to negotiate a deal whereby Saddam Hussein loyalists would leave the mosque in return for safe passage out of the city.
Al-Khoei heads a London-based philanthropic group. His father, Ayatollah Abul-Qassim al-Khoei, was the Shia spiritual leader at the time of the 1991 Shiite uprising against Saddam and died while under house arrest.
Abdel Majid Al-Khoei had recently urged his followers in the Shia cities to stay at home and let the American troops do their job. He said Saddam's tactics of urban warfare and the use of paramilitary militias made it highly risky for the population to revolt.
Strongly pro-US, Sayed Abdul Majid Al-Khoei was a bitter critic of Saddam Hussein. He temporarily lived in London waiting for an opportunity to return to Iraq.
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle