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Pro-U.S. Shiite Cleric "Assassinated" By: Anwar Iqbal
United Press International | Friday, April 11, 2003

A prominent Shiite leader and supporter of the U.S. presence in Iraq was assassinated Thursday, CNN reported.

Seyyed Abdelmajid al-Khoei was assassinated in the Shiite holy city of Najaf in southern Iraq, the report said.

He was the son of late Grand Ayatollah Abul-Qasim al-Khoei, who was the highest Shiite religious authority in the world at the time of the first Gulf War. The elder al-Khoei had more followers than Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini.

Al-Khoei was gunned down while he was about to address a news conference. Arab news reports said he was attacked by a group of men armed with knives.

Ghanem Jawad of the al-Khoei Institution in London told al-Jazeera TV station that followers of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime in Najaf were responsible.

CNN said some reports said that he had only been wounded, while others said he was dead.

Jawad could not confirm the death either but said al-Khoei's assistant, Haidar al-Kilidar, was killed.

Khoei lived in London for more than a decade before returning to Iraq last week.

He was a strong supporter of the U.S. presence in Iraq.

On Tuesday, Iran's official Islamic Republic News Agency carried an interview with Khoei, which was interpreted in the West as a rare conciliatory gesture toward the United States by Iran.

In the interview, Khoei endorsed the U.S. statement that coalition forces had not damaged the Shiites' two holiest shrines in Iraq.

The Iraqi cities of Najaf and Karbala have the mausoleums of the first and the third imams of the Shiite Islam. Any damage to these shrines would have inflamed emotions across the Islamic world as Islam's majority Sunni sect also regards the two imams as holy. One of them -- Ali -- was the son-in-law of Prophet Mohammed and the other -- Hussain -- his grandson.

Khoei, who was living in Najaf, the site of the mausoleum of Imam Ali, since his return from London was also a prominent member of the anti-Saddam Iraqi opposition. The whole family was persecuted by Saddam, with many members murdered or disappeared.

"Believe me, not a single bullet has hit the wall of the shrine," Khoei told the Iranian news agency.

Khoei also said that in the past pro-Saddam militia had used residential areas in Najaf as human shields to protect themselves against the coalition forces.

The cleric told IRNA that life in the Shiite holy city was "very much back to normal" because it was "completely in the hands of its residents and the last remnants of Iraqi militiamen from the ruling Baath party and Saddam's suicidal Fedayeen forces had "either been killed, captured or fled.

"Restaurants, shops and the grand bazaar are open but the city does not have electricity which forces shopkeepers to close early," he added.

But he warned of a shortage of gas as all gas stations ran on electricity, the cleric said.

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