Death of a Leader

The killing of Abdul Majid in Najaf is a devastating blow to the hopes of Shias, and all Iraqis, to build a new and moderate society.

Death of a Leader

The killing of Abdul Majid in Najaf is a devastating blow to the hopes of Shias, and all Iraqis, to build a new and moderate society.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

Sayyed Abdul Majid el-Khoei, who was murdered in the holy city of Najaf on Thursday, spent his life trying to reconcile Iraq's fragmented Shia community. His murder has dealt a devastating blow to hopes that Iraqi Shias could improve their community and build a new and more moderate society - not just for Shias, but for all Iraqi people.

Since arriving in southern Iraq on April 3, Sayyed Abdul Majid had used his influence to bring calm and stability. Because of his presence and his intervention, Najaf was handed over to the allies without any bloodshed.

The main goal of his mission was to prevent any loss of life in Najaf - not just his own home city, but also the holy shrine of the Imam Ali and the centre of the Shia religion's high authorities. He set up a civil authority to run services and take care of security in the city under Abdul Hassan al-Kafaji, formerly director of the Al-Khoei Foundation library in London.

Seeing his influence, the allies took him to Kerbala and Diwaniyah and he took his message there: "Don't fight. Avoid bloodshed. Seek reconciliation."

His death came after he called for a reconciliation meeting in Najaf's Imam Ali mosque between local religious leaders and Haidar Rifeii, the Guardian of the Shrine of Imam Ali. Imam Ali was the Prophet Mohammed's son-in-law and is considered by Shias to be his successor.

The post of Guardian of the Shrine is an inherited one, passing down within a family, and the man who held it inevitably had links with the regime. It has been said that Haidar Rifeii was an "animal", someone with close ties to Saddam. But he is reported wrongly. He was not a bad man: a man in his position had to listen to the government's orders. When Saddam, or any of his people, visited Najaf, Haidar Rifeii had to greet them and deal with them.

When Najaf fell, Haidar Rifeii went into hiding for a few days. On Thursday morning, Abdul Majid called religious leaders and Haidar Rifeii together in the office of the Guardian of the Shrine to attempt a reconciliation. An armed group came to the office and asked Abdul Majid to hand Haidar over so they could kill him. They said he was loyal to Saddam, a Ba'athist. Abdul Majid refused. He said: "We don't want bloodshed. We must be tolerant." He was beginning to talk to them. But their minds were closed and they were determined to do what they had come to do.

They opened fire on one of Abdul Majid's aides, Maher el-Yasseri, and killed him. Then a crowd started to smash windows in the office. They entered and cornered Abdul Majid. After they had injured him, and he was already bleeding, they took him outside and finished him off with knives.

We do not know yet whose hand, if any, was behind the crowd that killed Abdul Majid, whether it was the Fedayeen of Saddam, another militia or any rival. All things are possible.

But the responsibility for Abdul Majid's death lies not just with those who dealt the blows that killed him. It also lies with those who got rid of Saddam Hussein's regime. When dictatorial governments fall, societies collapse in chaos. The American and British forces who created the power vacuum that we are now seeing in Iraq have a duty to control the situation that has resulted from it. They have eliminated Saddam; now they have to save the lives of innocent people.

Abdul Majid was brave and open-minded. His aims were humanitarian aims. There was no-one like him. We have lost one of the most important leaders who could have guided the Shia community, and Iraq, to live in peace and stability. Our hopes of building a strong new civil society are devastated.

After his murder, Sayyed Abdul Majid's body was taken to the al-Khadra mosque, where it lies beside those of his father, Grand Ayatollah abu al-Qasm al-Khoei, who died at the age of 92 after being kept under house arrest by the regime, and his brother Mohammed Taki, who was killed in 1994 in a car crash orchestrated by the regime between Najaf and Kerbala.

Another brother, Ibrahim al-Khoei, is one of 106 members of the Grand Ayatollah's staff who were arrested in 1991 as Saddam Hussein crushed the popular uprising against him that followed his defeat in Kuwait. On that occasion, the Grand Ayatollah was taken to Baghdad and detained in military intelligence headquarters before being paraded on television in a staged meting with Saddam.

None of the 106 have been seen since.

Ghanem Jawad is a human rights activist who has worked closely for many years with UN special rapporteurs for Iraq. He is head of the culture and human rights department of the Al-Khoei Foundation in London.

Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq
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