| Abdul Majid al-Khoei, who was murdered on Thursday
Kuwait, April 13 (Reuters): Armed men have surrounded the house of a top Shia Muslim cleric in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf, giving him 48 hours to leave the country or face attack, aides to the cleric said today.
The siege of the home of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a sign of religious strife at the heart of Iraq’s majority community, boded ill for national unity after the US-led war to topple Saddam Hussein and set alarm bells ringing across the region.
Shia sources said Sistani was not in the house, but that his son was. US troops stationed on the outskirts of Najaf had entered the city to help restore order, they added.
US Central Command in Qatar had no immediate confirmation of the move. “Armed thugs and hooligans have had the house of Ayatollah Sistani under siege since yesterday,” Kuwait-based Ayatollah Abulqasim Dibaji said. “They have told him to either leave Iraq in 48 hours or they would attack.”
Dibaji said the house was surrounded by members of Jimaat-e-Sadr-Thani, a shadowy group led by Moqtada Sadr, the ambitious 22-year-old son of a late spiritual leader in Iraq.
“Moqtada wants to take total control of the holy sites in Iraq,” Dibaji said.
Shias form a 60 per cent majority in Iraq but have long suffered discrimination at the hands of a Sunni ruling elite and, in the past three decades, under Saddam.
Unrest in Najaf, three days after another leading Shia cleric was murdered at its main mosque, was a further troubling sign for US forces hoping for stability in Iraq after the war.
Abed al-Budairi, an aide to senior cleric Abdul Majid al-Khoei, who was murdered in Najaf on Thursday, said Sistani left his Najaf home before it was surrounded by men wielding knives and guns, but that Sistani’s son was in the building.
Najaf, where Sistani and many other top Shia spiritual leaders live, is a centre of pilgrimage and religious learning and home to the tomb of Imam Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad and considered the first Shia leader.
“This is the biggest catastrophe. Total terror reigns in Najaf,” said Dibaji. “Najaf is a main centre of learning, like Oxford in England. It has more than 1,000 years of history.”
The city offers enormous financial, political and religious clout to whoever controls it as it emerges from a long isolation imposed by Iraq’s secular but Sunni-controlled Baath party.
Senior Shia leaders have blamed Jimaat-e-Sadr-Thani for orchestrating the killing of Khoei, who was hacked to death by a mob at the gold-domed Imam Ali shrine just days after returning from exile in London to help Iraq make the transition to democracy. Another cleric was also killed in the attack.
Budairi said he believed Sistani had been targeted because he was Iranian-born, and the radical groups opposed to him wanted an Iraqi as the spiritual leader in Najaf.
“They went to his house and told him to leave Najaf because he is not Arab. He (Moqtada) is young, he is immature, he is against Iranian ayatollahs, and he wants the grand Maarja (top Shia spiritual leader) to be Iraqi,” he said, adding that a religious leader from non-Arab Afghanistan, Ishaq Sayyaf, had also been told to leave.
A senior Shia opposition leader in Tehran condemned the siege of Sistani’s house. “We hope that the wise clerics in Iraq manage to control those with more hardline tendencies and remind them that what is happening in Najaf does not benefit the Iraqi people,” he said.
Lebanon’s leading Shia cleric, Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, issued a statement telling Muslims to use all means to defend Sistani from an “evil assault”.
“On this occasion, we stress the matter is on a level of a fatwa... because the issue is connected to the Islamic seat on which the entire Islamic future is centred,” he said.