Cleric's Killing Setback to U.S.

CIA lost an ally and $13M

By Knut Royce
Washington Bureau

May 2, 2003: (Newsday) Washington -- The United States suffered a major blow in its campaign to recruit friendly Shia clerics inside Iraq last month when it lost an influential religious ally to an angry mob -- and up to $13 million the CIA had given him to cultivate supporters.

While he was widely perceived to be pro-American, Iraqis were unaware that the cleric, Abdel Majid al-Khoei, had agreed to use the CIA cash in a covert program to enlist support within the splintered Shia community, according to knowledgeable U.S. sources.

Al-Khoei and a pro-Saddam Hussein religious leader were stabbed to death on April 10 in front of a mosque in the holy city of Najaf by an angry mob reportedly backing competing Shia clergy.

Witnesses to the slaying said that as al-Khoei was being stabbed, a number of $100 and $50 bills in U.S. currency spilled out of his clerical robes. "There was some American money flying around with lots of blood on it," said one of the witnesses, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. "The money was hidden in his clothes, and that made the crowd even angrier at him."

Al-Khoei's pro-American sympathies were no secret, and he had returned to Iraq from exile in London several days earlier with the assistance of U.S. troops, who provided a constant escort as he traveled through Najaf. He had urged the Shia community to support the U.S. war to topple Hussein and on the day he was killed was preaching reconciliation with former Hussein backers.

The U.S. government clearly saw in al-Khoei a valuable asset in enlisting support among Shia, who, though splintered, have become increasingly vocal in their calls for the U.S. military to leave Iraq.

And the covert operation underscores the high stakes involved in America's efforts to establish a post-war government coalition of competing factions that is democratic and sympathetic to Western values. Some of the country's 16 million Shia, who constitute 60 percent of the population, want an Islamic state.

"We allocated $13 million to the al-Khoei operation," said a well-placed intelligence source. "It was part of a covert action program to strengthen Shiites who are pro-Western" and to recruit new allies.

"I don't know where the $13 million is," he said. "... A good chunk of it is missing."

An administration official familiar with the CIA's operation declined to discuss how much money may have been lost or retrieved. Asked whether the cash may have been a motive behind the killing, he said, "I guess you can't rule it out, but I doubt it."

Witnesses to the slaying said that many members of the mob, armed with guns, knives and swords, were members of a faction backed by the son of an ayatollah assassinated by the Baghdad regime in 1999. Others said that some of the assailants were Baath Party members.

The administration official described the loss of al-Khoei as a "significant" setback to U.S. efforts to counter Iranian influence within the Shia clergy and to cultivate a moderate, if not necessarily pro-American, bloc within the community.

David Long, a retired State Department Mideast specialist, agreed. "The loss was significant in terms of a loss of voice of reason among the Shia clergy," he said. "He was a relative voice of reason, one of the more measured in the Shia clergy leadership."

Al-Khoei was the son of the Grand Ayatollah Abolqassem Khoei, who was the Shia spiritual leader during the uprising following the Gulf War in 1991. He died at age 95 while under house arrest in 1993, and al-Khoei fled to London, where he founded a charitable organization.

Last week, the new civil administration in Najaf issued a list of 16 people wanted for questioning in the al-Khoei murder.

Middle East Correspondent Mohamad Bazzi contributed to this report.

Copyright 2003, Newsday, Inc.


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