US Shysterism in Iraqi in 2004

Was Sadr Framed?

Gwydion M. Williams looks at the mass of contradictions in the accusations against Muqtada al-Sadr for the killing of Abdel Majid al-Khoei

[Written in 2004, I argue that the short-lived subserviant government the USA installed tried to frame a major opponent for a crime he was probably not connected to.]

The USA’s mission in Iraq is freedom, which means people freely doing the stuff that the USA wants them to do. The trouble is, most Iraqis have something else in mind, and so cannot be free in the sense of freely choosing until it is certain that they will be freely doing the stuff that the USA wants them to do.

It wouldn’t have taken more than a couple of months to organise workable elections, using the UN ration card that was an excellent register of actual Iraqi citizens. It seems that General Jay Garner actually wished to do something of the sort, and also didn’t want to impose ‘privatisation’ before the Iraqis themselves had had a say. (Guardian, March 18, 2004.) But in the view of President Bush, the USA hadn’t fought a war so that Iraq could elect itself a strongly religious government, something much more alien to Western values than Saddam ever was. Gardner was replaced by Paul Bremer, who is scheduled to be replaced by ‘See-No-Evil’ Negroponte.

(In 1981, Negroponte replaced Jack Binns as US ambassador to Honduras. Binns had repeatedly complained about the ‘dirty war’, but Negroponte “consistently denied having knowledge of any wrongdoing”. Just the man to clean up after the serious and admitted prisoner-abuse in US military prisons, obviously.)

Bush’s idea was to keep Iraq in a kind of limbo until the existing crop of anti-Saddam leaders should be replaced by others who’d be freely doing the stuff that the USA wanted them to do. Abdel Majid al-Khoei was the most serious figure among the crowd who seemed actually willing to do this. He was the son of Grand Ayatollah Abolqassem al-Khoei, who died (probably murdered) in 1992. Some of the elder al-Khoei’s Islamic rulings can be found in English on the Internet:

“2796. It is well known that if a man sees another man committing adultery with his wife, and has no fear of sustaining harm, he can kill both of them. However, it appears difficult that this order should be valid. However his wife does not become unlawful for him.

“2747. If an adult and sane person commits sodomy with another adult and sane person, both of them should be killed. And the religious Head can kill the person guilty of sodomy with a sword, or bum him alive, or tie his hands and feet and hurl him down from a high place, and under the conditions mentioned in Article 2795 can lapidate him.” (http://www.al-islam.org/laws/al-khui/35.htm) It really does say that sodomites should be ‘bummed alive’, though I suspect that this should actually be ‘burn him alive’.

The younger al-Khoei was a ‘moderate’, in the sense that he was happy to see his own people from a US viewpoint and try to subordinate them to the ‘Anglosphere’. He was seen as their key man in shaping the mass of Shiites into something the USA would approve of. Which may be why he was killed back in April 2003, with Muqtada al-Sadr currently being blamed. But accounts written closer to the events are much vaguer, with Muqtada al-Sadr’s guilt growing as it became apparent he was the focus of anti-US feeling among Shiites. Muqtada al-Sadr is important as the son of Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr,

I found the following account at a website called Shia News:

“The shrine had been under the brutal control of the hated Haider Kaidar, of Saddam’s Ministry of religion.

“In a gesture of reconciliation, Al-Kaidar was accompanied to the shrine by Abdul Majid al-Khoei, according to the Associated Press.

“When the two men appeared at the shrine, members of another faction loyal to a different cleric, Mohammed Baqer al-Sadr whose family had also been persecuted under Saddam’s regime, verbally assailed Kaidar.

“Al-Kadar was an animal,” said Adil Adnan al-Moussawi, 25, who witnessed the confrontation.

“Agha Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr (45) was tortured and killed along with his sister, Amina Sadr Bint al-Huda in April 1980 by Saddam’s regime. Another member of the Sadr family, Agha Sadiq Al-Sadr (56) was gunned down along with his two sons in February 1999 after he demanded that the Iraqi regime release 106 scholars jailed following the March 1991 uprising in Southern Iraq.

“Apparently feeling threatened, al-Khoei pulled a gun and fired one or two shots. There were conflicting accounts over whether he fired the bullets into the air, or in the crowd, according to the Associated Press.

“Both men were then rushed by the crowd and hacked to death with swords and knives, the witnesses said.

“Although some western analysts have described the killing as result of power struggle between various Shia groups, they have ignored the hatred and dislike of the community towards Saddam’s regime and any of its members.

“Bringing Haider Kaidar to a meeting of Shia clerics, especially after the fall of Baghdad, sends a signal that the coalition might be forced to compromise on some members of the brutal regime which has tortured and killed thousands of Shias.” (http://www.shianews.com/hi/middle_east/news_id/0000796.php).

You get a rather different version in Newsweek (May 19 2003):

“According to one source in Najaf, al-Sadr told followers that he was “frightened” of al-Khoei and resented his arrival in the city; he beefed up his security, attacked the former exile as an agent of the U.S. government and urged Shiites to resist the Americans. “Sadr was jealous of Khoei,” says one Shiite cleric. “He was uneducated, while Khoei was a scholar.” Al-Sadr may have felt emboldened after receiving a letter on April 7 from Kadhem al-Husseini al-Haeri, the radical Iraqi cleric based in the holy Iranian city of Qom, that named al-Sadr as his representative in Iraq. The following day al-Haeri issued a fatwa calling on followers in Iraq to “kill all Saddamists who try to take charge…

“Al-Khoei tried to arrange a meeting with al-Sadr; through intermediaries al-Sadr demanded that al-Khoei first deliver the keys to the shrine to him. The keys open a gilded cage that contains the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law—and access to millions in cash donations left by pilgrims from around the world. Al-Khoei refused, and the meeting never took place.

“In fact, those keys remained in the hands of Haidar Raifee, the principal custodian, or kelidar, of the shrine. [Presumably the same person as Shia News’s ‘Haider Kaidar’] Raifee was a religious scholar whose family had served at the shrine for 400 years. He was also a member of the Baath Party and a delegate to Saddam’s rubber-stamp National Assembly. Some Shiite leaders accused him of stealing precious gifts and giving them to Saddam, including a diamond presented to the shrine by the Shah of Iran in the 1930s. (Raifee’s deputies deny it.) Raifee also allegedly diverted many of the donations left inside the tomb to the Baath Party. The thefts got so bad that Shiite religious leaders in Najaf issued a fatwa ordering followers to cease leaving donations.

“After the fall of the Iraqi government, Raifee hid behind the walls of his compound. Yet al-Khoei apparently viewed the return of Raifee to his post as a key gesture of reconciliation in the seething city. On the morning of April 10, al-Khoei visited Raifee’s home to escort him to the shrine. Raifee was frightened: he demanded that —al-Khoei guarantee his safety. Al-Khoei pulled together a dozen men armed with Kalashnikovs, and they set out in a convoy for the holy site at 9 a.m. Despite the mission’s sensitivity—or perhaps because of it—al-Khoei hadn’t informed U.S. military or civilian leaders about it…

“Deputy custodians prevented the bodyguards from entering, claiming that their weapons would violate the sanctity of the site. Raifee, al-Khoei and an unarmed retinue of exiles decided to continue alone across a wide interior courtyard to the gold-leaf-adorned hall that houses the marble tomb.

“The trouble began minutes later, according to several witnesses. As the group finished prayers and retired to the custodian’s guest quarters for tea, an angry mob armed with hand grenades, swords and assault rifles surrounded the building. “Raifee is back!” some shouted. “Long live Muqtada al-Sadr!” The mob smashed the windows; al-Khoei urged them to retreat. “This is sacrilege,” he told them. “We are all Shiites and you must respect the shrine.” An aide managed to get outside and call the U.S. commander in Najaf on a Thuraya satellite phone, but the officer said he had no orders to rescue them. Then members of the crowd sprayed the hall with AK-47 fire, fatally injuring a member of al-Khoei’s entourage. Al-Khoei grabbed a gun that the night guards stored inside the building and fired at least one warning shot through the window, to no avail. A grenade sailed through the window and blew off three of al-Khoei’s fingers; soon the mob entered the building, led by a man called Sheik Riyadh, the manager of al-Sadr’s office. “Don’t say a word,” he warned. “You’re all prisoners of Muqtada.”

“The assailants snatched Raifee’s ceremonial fez off his head, seized al-Khoei’s phones and a bag stuffed with cash, bound the hands of al-Khoei and Raifee with cotton strips and marched them through the eastern gate. According to a witness, members of the group later explained that al-Sadr had ordered them not to carry out the killings inside the shrine. Raifee was shot and hacked to death at the gate. Witnesses say al-Khoei broke free and fled up a muddy alley that led to al-Sadr’s headquarters. He banged on the locked door, calling for help, then sought refuge in a sewing-machine shop. Moments later, the mob set upon him with knives and bayonets. According to eyewitnesses, al-Khoei begged them to finish him off with bullets.” (http://msnbc.msn.com/id/3068555/)

The two accounts agree that it was the pro-Saddam cleric who sparked the popular rage, a point which has now slipped out of most Western versions. And that al-Khoei pulled a gun and fired at least one shot, though Newsweek has it in response to shooting by an armed crowd, while Shia News says he began the violence against a mob equipped with swords and knives.

Newsweek has the mob puzzlingly keen to advertise Muqtada al-Sadr’s own involvement and guilt. Shia News makes them followers of Muqtada al-Sadr’s martyred father—there is a wider Sadrist movement, not all of whom recognise Muqtada al-Sadr as their leader. This last would make sense of al-Khoei’s attempt to get help from Muqtada al-Sadr, if he was attacked by men who were not Muqtada al-Sadr’s followers but might have respected his opinions.

But was it even Sadrists who killed al-Khoei? A BBC account of 22/04/2004 says “Najaf is still trying to recover from the violent events of 10 April, when a prominent cleric, Abdel-Majid al-Khoei, who had recently returned from exile in London, was killed in circumstances which are still far from clear…[The Sadr group] has a following in Najaf, where some people have implicated it in the killing of Abdel-Majid al-Khoei – a charge it strongly denies. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/world/middle_east/2967717.stm)

It is also moot if Muqtada al-Sadr and al-Khoei were in real competition, since they were at opposite ends of the spectrum of Shia opinion. An account in Time (Apr. 10, 2003) points elsewhere:

“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… But al-Khoei’s role may also have challenged the ambitions of Mullah al-Sadr… 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.” (http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,442342,00.html?cnn=yes ).

There are also massive discrepancies in the account of where and how al-Khoei was killed. Was he hacked to death? Or hacked and then shot? Or dragged through the streets and shot after he was already dead. A simple autopsy should establish that much, but it remains vague.

The US now says that there was an investigation that concluded in October that Muqtada al-Sadr was guilty. And then did nothing about it for several months more. Oddly enough, there was a report in The Guardian for October 22, 2003 which supports this version:

“Coalition and Iraqi officials are preparing an arrest warrant for the firebrand Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr over his alleged involvement with the brutal murder of a rival cleric last spring, sources close to the Iraqi governing council told the Guardian yesterday…

“”The belief of the coalition is that al-Sadr is not containable,” the council source said. “They believe there is enough evidence that Muqtada was involved in the Khoei assassination and want to act to clip his wings before he can cause any more damage.”

“The bulk of the evidence against Mr Sadr is understood to be based on confessions from 23 men arrested after the attack. Three are reported to have confessed to the stabbing while another 20 said they prevented Mr Khoei from seeking help while bleeding to death. Under questioning, they admitted receiving direct instructions from the young cleric, the source said.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/Iraq/Story/0,2763,1068152,00.html).

This chimes with the original Shia News account, in which only al-Khoei had a firearm and he was killed with edged weapons. But if there was any substance to the charge, why was it not publicised at the time? Even if it would have been difficult to physically arrest him, they could have made the accusation and demand he face trial. If the evidence obtained in October 2003 was worth anything, why was it not exposed to public scrutiny?

The story mutates again in April 2004, after Muqtada al-Sadr protested at having his newspaper closed for a couple of months. An aide had also been arrested for reasons that were still obscure on 4th April 2004, when shots were fired between a Sadrist crowd and Spanish-commanded troops at a base. Then the al-Khoei killing suddenly became Muqtada al-Sadr’s personal responsibility, only the details have changed again:

“Ayatollah Khoei’s murder was particularly vicious, a death scene out of Shakespeare. According to a coalition investigator, whom I spoke with last October, a group of Sadr supporters armed with knives surrounded their boss outside the shrine and asked him for permission to kill Khoei, who had gone inside. “Now, by the will of god, attack,” Sadr allegedly said. When Khoei emerged, he was first hit by knives and perhaps gunfire on the steps of the mosque. But he managed to stagger to a nearby shop, whose owners sought to protect him. An emissary from Sadr came to the wounded Khoei, and promised safe passage to Sadr’s office to clear up the “misunderstanding.” Khoei, according to the coalition source who cited an eyewitness, unwisely accepted.

“As he arrived at the doorway of Sadr’s small office, he was repeatedly slashed with knives and shot with a rifle. So there, dead on the pavement of Najaf, was one of America’s best hopes for winning the four-square support of Iraq’s Shiite majority. By October, my source said a legal case had been prepared against Sadr strong enough to arrest him, and that he was confident it would lead to conviction.

“But the CPA, afraid that his arrest would spark a confrontation and lead to widespread violence, decided to hold its warrant in reserve, said my source. The CPA quietly put out signals to Sadr that he wouldn’t be molested if his behaviour improved, an incentive to play ball.” (Christian Science Monitor, April 7, 2004, http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/notebook_iraq/analysis/ )

Not quite Shakespeare, more like Rashomon, in which the same event is described in several incompatible ways. The pro-Saddam cleric has vanished from the scene, while al-Khoei’s supposed decision to leave a place of safety would have been something more than ‘unwise’—totally unbelievable, I’d have said. But it gets worse:

“On April 10, Khoei and several associates visited the holy shrine to meet the present ayatollah, Ali al-Sistani.

“According to the brief, Juhy has found an eyewitness who is willing to testify that Sadr, who saw Khoei as a threat to his ambitions, became aware of Khoei’s visit and planned with his associates to kill him.

“A second eyewitness says that when Sadr and a group of followers entered the mosque and saw Khoei’s group, Sadr’s followers said; “Just say the word, master, and we will attack.”

“The brief says: “Sadr replied, ‘Just wait, just wait’.”

“A funeral procession then came into the mosque, and using this distraction, Sadr called to his followers to attack.

“”(The) witness reported that Sadr said, ‘By the will of God, attack’.”

“Sadr then left the mosque and returned to his office, whereupon his followers drew AK-47s from their robes and started firing in the direction of Khoei and his group in the Khaladaria, an area in which the offices of the mosque clerics are located.

“Khoei’s bodyguard was armed with a pistol and returned fire.

“”During the course of the firefight Khoei suffered an injury to his hand, losing a couple of fingers. When the Khoei group ran out of ammunition, Riyadh Nouri, a key Sadr lieutenant, called out on a megaphone for a ceasefire,” the brief says.

“”He offered Khoei a hearing to defend himself in Sadr’s nearby office. Khoei agreed, but as they emerged from the Khaladaria in the mosque, the Sadr mob descended upon them and began beating and stabbing them.

“”At the entrance (of the mosque), Haider al-Kaliedar (Khoei’s bodyguard) died from the knife attacks. At this point, Khoei and two of his group broke free and ran to the office of Sadr, suffering from many stab wounds and the beatings. Sadr refused to open the door to the office.

“”At this point, a merchant from across the street came and collected the three persons, helping them into his shop. There Khoei passed out from his stabbing and gunshot wounds. Two clerics from the Sadr office came into the shop and tested Khoei’s pulse.

“”They then left and reported to Sadr. The mob gathered outside the shop and Sadr left his office.

“”There is a (third) eyewitness who can testify that Sadr gave the direction to take him (Khoei) away and ‘Kill him in your own special way’.

“”Khoei was dragged from the shop and down the street by his feet, with his head banging on each of the stone steps down to the next street level. He was dragged up that street to about 50 metres from the entrance to the Imam Ali mosque, and there a Sadr follower produced an AK-47 and shot Khoei in the head.” (How Iraqi judge cornered Sadr, The Australian, 17 April 2004, http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5744,9302796%255E601,00.html.)

This account also glosses over the pro-Saddam cleric, and has a very different notion of the weapons used by al-Khoei and his enemies. The mob are no longer at pains to associate al-Sadr with their deeds, but this no longer matters since he was heard to order it. (Clearly a man who’s never watched The Godfather.)

Yet another ‘eyewitness’ account comes from an Iraqi journalist who is currently seeking asylum in Britain

“Ma’ad Fayad, 47, an Iraqi journalist who sought asylum in Britain six years ago, was among a dozen friends to return with Mr al-Khoei to Najaf. Their group was tailed by black-clad followers of al-Sadr from the day they arrived in the city, he said.

“”They looked at us like enemies, but we never supposed they would attack us. Al-Sadr is a murderer and a thief. But he is hiding in a holy shrine, like a coward.”

“Mr Fayad recalled how, on April 10, Mr al-Khoei went to the shrine to pray. In a gesture of reconciliation he invited Haidar al-Rufaie al-Killidar, the custodian of the mosque, who was reviled by many for “collaborating” with Saddam, to accompany him. They appeared to be welcomed by crowds already there.

“Later, as they sat in al-Killidar’s office, a threatening group of al-Sadr supporters gathered. “Mr al-Khoei tried to address them using a microphone, but someone cut the cable,” Mr Fayad said. “They said they wanted al-Killidar, to kill him now.” Mr al-Khoei reminded them that they were in a holy place and urged them to stop. Within moments, Mr Fayad said, the crowd brandished knives, swords and guns, and a man sprayed bullets through the windows with a Kalashnikov, killing Maher al-Naseri, a cleric from Detroit.

“A 90-minute siege followed as “six or seven of us” held the attackers at bay with guns that the custodian kept for his protection. They surrendered only when a grenade blew three fingers off Mr al-Khoei’s hand. One of the men went out with a white flag and a Koran on his head.

“Mr Fayad said: “They tied our hands behind us and put us against a wall. Some shouted to kill us, finish it now, but others said not inside a holy shrine. Then a messenger came with orders to bring us to al-Sadr’s house.”

“They were led out, into the courtyard of the mosque. “It was midday, and I saw the knives and swords shining under the sun. I said, ‘Oh my God, this is the end’. They started to attack Haidar al-Rufaie with knives. He was a big man, and blood came through his clothes. They killed him in front of me.”

“As they walked the 500 yards to al-Sadr’s house, attackers slashed at Mr al-Khoei with knives. “He tried to protect himself, but he bled a lot. Moqtada al-Sadr could still have helped, but he sent someone out with a message, ‘Kill them outside my house. I don’t want these people inside’.”…

“Last night, Mr Fayad said that his family in Jordan had been threatened with violence if he testifies against al-Sadr, but had been refused asylum in Britain. He pleaded with Mr Blair to overturn the decision.” (Daily Telegraph, 18/04/2004, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2004/04/18/wirq118.xml

Of course Iraq has had no real government since Saddam fell. The USA set up structures under its own control. “That an “Iraqi judge” issued a warrant is just misdirection. The Coalition Provisional Authority appointed the judges, who are not independent actors. The CPA clearly decided if and when such a warrant would actually be used. For some reason the CPA decided to move against Muqtada on Saturday, provoking his reaction. Since we now know there was a warrant for his arrest, it is not even clear that it was an over-reaction. If the CPA was going to arrest him and execute him for murder, what would he have to lose by demonstrating that he would not go quietly? Journalists kept asking me today why Muqtada chose to act now, why he didn’t just wait for the Americans to leave. The answer is that the CPA had clearly targeted him, and forced his hand”. (http://www.juancole.com/ )

Maybe, maybe not. If the Coalition thought they could bring a charge of politically-motivated murder, why confuse the matter by banning a newspaper? It makes sense only if the charges were never very plausible, nothing that could have been used if Moqtada al-Sadr had offered to stand trial in Jordan under a Jordanian judge, for instance. You’d not expect him to surrender to his Shia rivals who sit on the Iraqi “Governing” Council, obviously, nor to an Occupying Power that he does not see as legitimate. But there is no indication that any choice was ever offered, not even the unlikely option of submitting peacefully and daring the USA to try him in open court. Only after he became impossible to arrest did the Coalition show any interest in arresting him.

Shysterism is second nature to US politicians and administrators. In the USA, it mostly works. In Iraq, they apply the principle of ‘Id Scere Nolo’, I don’t wish to know that. They act as if they were still in the USA. Hence all of the mess-ups.

First published in Labour & Trade Union Review, 2004

[Moqtada al-Sadr was prominent among the religious Shia factions that were the strongest single force in Iraqi elections and formed the governments.  In 2014, he unexpectedly withdrew from politics and currently seems inactive. 

[So far, no one has been charged with the murder of Abdel Majid al-Khoei.  The current Wiki entry fails to mention that Moqtada al-Sadr was ever accused.

[Note that spellings of Arab names in English-language sourced vary a lot.  The Wiki has Muqtadā al-Ṣadr and Abdul Majid al-Khoei.]

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