What a Shiite Stabbing Says About Post-Saddam Perils

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Abdul Majid al-Khoei

The power struggle among Iraqis to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime may have claimed its first victim Thursday when Ayatollah Abdul Majid al-Khoei was stabbed to death by unknown assailants inside the Imam Ali Mosque, Shiite Islam's holiest shrine, in the city of An Najaf. According to press reports, al-Khoei was killed during a meeting with a rival cleric backed by Saddam's regime over control of the shrine. The reports said al-Khoei had gone to the aid of the regime-backed cleric who had been attacked by a crowd inside the mosque, and both men were stabbed in the ensuing melee. The killing couldn't have come at a more sensitive moment in the battle for political and religious influence over Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority, and it reflects some of the dangers confronting coalition forces seeking to stabilize post-Saddam Iraq.

The Two Ayatollahs

It helps to look at the background of Iraqi's Shia population and of Ayatollah al-Khoei. The scion of one of the two most powerful families of Iraqi Shiites, al-Khoei returned to An Najaf two weeks ago with the help of the U.S. military after a decade in exile outside Iraq. He was the son of the former Grand Ayatollah of An Najaf, Abdul-Qasim al-Khoei, who had died in 1992 under house arrest by Saddam Hussein's regime. The current Grand Ayatollah, Ali al-Sistani, was also under house arrest until U.S. troops took control of the city last week.

Iraq's Shiites comprise almost two-thirds of the population, but have been an oppressed underclass throughout Iraq's modern history. Their numbers, and their alienation from Saddam's regime make winning their support indispensable for any representative and stable government the U.S. attempts to create in post-Saddam Iraq. It may have been to that end that the U.S. military had facilitated Ayatollah al-Khoei's return to An Najaf. Al-Khoei was reported to have taken a pro-Western position, and was working to rally support among Shiite clerics for the U.S.-led transition process. At the time of his murder, he had been due to address a group of Arab journalists flown to the town by the U.S. military — and had been expected to cast the U.S.-led invasion in a positive light. But his security had been provided by his own supporters — U.S. troops are forbidden from entering the mosque.

Al-Khoei had a powerful rival for influence among Iraq's Shiites. His own claim to succeed the 73-year-old Sistani as Grand Ayatollah (the spiritual leader of Iraq's Shiites) was eclipsed only by that of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, whose father had been the Grand Ayatollah before al-Khoei's, and whose family had suffered bitterly at the hands of Saddam's regime. Hakim, who as a Grand Ayatollah has a higher theological standing than al-Khoei, is better known to outsiders as the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the Tehran-based exile organization estimated before the war to be the most influential body among Iraq's Shiites. Washington had, in fact, drawn SCIRI into a tentative coalition of six exile groups ahead of "Operation Iraqi Freedom." But the Pentagon had, at the same time, warned al-Hakim to refrain from sending his 10,000 exiled guerrilla fighters back into the country. SCIRI's al-Badr brigade has been armed and trained by Iran's Revolutionary Guard, and the Pentagon was suspicious of an armed group that might serve as a proxy force for hard-liners in Tehran.

Ayatollah al-Hakim had announced on Monday that he would return to Iraq within days. But al-Khoei's role may also have challenged the ambitions of Mullah al-Sadr. Even as Ayatollah al-Khoei returned to An Najaf, Mullah al-Sadr had sought to take control of humanitarian relief for the area. Although he had not met U.S. commanders himself, he had sent representatives to meetings with the Americans, who believe his ability to command substantial financial resources reflects backing from Tehran.

Shiites in Iran and Iraq

The relationship between Iraq's Shiites and the Iranian clerical leadership is far from simple. Many Iraqi clerics had fled to Iran at the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war for fear of persecution by Saddam. But Iraqi Shiites had, in large numbers, also fought bravely for their own country against the Iranian Shiites. Observers consider the Iraqi Shiite theological tradition more liberal than the hard-line version that prevails among Iran's clerical leadership.

Still, responses among Shiite leaders to "Operation Iraqi Freedom" have been decidedly ambiguous. While al-Khoei maintained ties with the U.S. military, al-Hakim's organization urged its supporters to remain passive. Saddam was the greater evil, they said, and Shiites should not fight to defend the regime. But SCIRI's supporters did not launch an uprising in support of the invasion, probably because of the bitter experience of 1991 when the Shiites were betrayed by the U.S. — the mass influx of SCIRI fighters from Iran during the 1991 uprising had been one reason the first Bush administration refrained from backing the rebellion. This time around, SCIRI officials make no secret of their skepticism of the U.S. intentions and vow to take up arms against American forces if they remain in Iraq after deposing Saddam.

Who's to blame?

Despite the potential rivalry between al-Khoei and al-Hakim, the slain cleric's supporters blamed his assassination on agents of Saddam Hussein's regime, rather than on any rivals. Indeed, Iran had not taken an outwardly hostile position to al-Khoei's return to An Najaf — Tehran's state-run news agency had, on Tuesday, carried an interview with the cleric in which he affirmed that coalition forces had not damaged any of the Shiite shrines, as had previously been reported.

Still, the murder of a cleric who may have emerged as a key U.S. ally in the potentially volatile cocktail of post-war Iraqi politics is a reminder that the process of replacing Saddam may yet be as bloody as the process of toppling him.