Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Support For Maliki Allows Sadr To Escape Prosecution For 2003 Murder Of Cleric Abdul Majid Al-Khoei

On October 24, 2011, Iraq’s Supreme Judicial Council announced that the murder case against Muqtada al-Sadr for the death of Sayid Abdul Majid al-Khoei in 2003 had been dropped. The court said that there was no incriminating evidence against Sadr, while a spokesman for the Council claimed that there was never even an investigation. He went on to say that there was an arrest warrant for Sadr, but that the British issued it. All of this was an amazing story, since an Iraqi judge did in fact hand out a warrant for Sadr and several of his lieutenants in 2003, and an attempt to enforce them by the Americans led to the first Sadr uprising in April 2004.

Sayyid Khoei (AFP)
Sayid Abdul Majid al-Khoei was a leading Iraqi cleric who went into exile after the Persian Gulf War. In 1991, after the conflict ended, Shiites in southern Iraq rose up against Saddam Hussein. Khoei was actively involved in the rebellion, transporting weapons and fighters between Najaf and Karbala, taking part in attacks, and even met with Coalition forces to ask if they would help. They declined, even though Washington had encouraged Iraqis to overthrow their government. The revolt only lasted a few days, and was eventually put down by the use of widespread repression by Baghdad. Al-Khoei’s father, Grand Ayatollah Sayid Abu al-Wasim al-Khoei was the head of Iraq’s Shiite religious establishment at the time, and was put under house arrest for helping the rebels. Afterward, several hundred thousand people became internal and external exiles, trying to flee the government forces. Sayid Khoei ended up escaping to London in 1992, where he lived in exile for the next eleven years. Khoei came from a prominent family, and he and his father’s involvement in the 1991 uprising made him one of the main Iraqi exile figures before the 2003 invasion.

In London, Khoei tried to remain involved with his community and Iraqi politics. He headed the Khoei Foundation, a Shiite charity, and fostered good relations with the United States State Department and the British Foreign Office. In December 2002, he attended a conference of Iraqi opposition parties in London to prepare for the coming U.S. invasion. The meeting went nowhere as the different factions were deeply divided. He also went to Washington D.C. to meet with CIA and Pentagon officials to discuss the impending war. Afterward, he began recruiting people who could go to Iraq after the fall of the regime to help stabilize the south. Due to his time in the West, and his moderate views, Khoei became a favorite of the two powers leading the drive to war with Iraq, England and the United States. They were hoping to draw upon his standing, and family name to help stabilize Iraq after the fall of the regime.

When the invasion of Iraq finally began in March 2003, Khoei went back to Iraq, and immediately ran into his family’s main protagonists, the Sadrists. On March 28, Khoei was flown from England to a U.S. military base in Bahrain. Then on April 3, he was taken to Nasiriyah, and eventually Najaf, his former home. He convinced the American forces to withdraw from the historical section of the city, and began lobbying Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who had succeeded Khoei’s father as the chief Shiite cleric in the country, to issue a fatwa to allow U.S. forces in the rest of Najaf. One of his aides suggested that he meet with Muqtada al-Sadr who was taking advantage of the fall of the regime to gain greater authority with Shiites. The Khoeis and Sadrs had become rivals in the 1990s. In 1998 for example, Moqtada’s father Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr condemned Khoei for fleeing Iraq, and said that he should not be part of the religious establishment. For that reason, Khoei turned down the suggestion. Sadr was aware of Khoei’s arrival, and had him followed. Upon his return, Khoei was hoping to re-establish himself with the country’s religious community, and his family’s followers. At the same time, he re-started his rivalry with Sadr. The Sadrists were preaching Iraqi nationalism and opposition to the Coalition's presence in the country. Khoei's arrival with the aid of the U.S. marked him as a collaborator in the eyes of Moqtada, which would eventually cost Khoei his life.
The Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf where Khoei was murdered by Sadr's followers (Wikipedia)
On April 10, 2003 Khoei went to the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf to meet with its custodian, and hold a press conference there. This was a controversial move because the custodian was seen as being a collaborator with Saddam. Khoei, the custodian, and a small entourage arrived at the shrine in the early morning. A crowd of Sadr supporters gathered outside, and began chanting pro-Sadr slogans. Khoei tried to clam the crowd. Journalist Patrick Cockburn claims that someone lunged at Khoei with a knife, while his son, Haider al-Khoei wrote that the Sadrists began throwing rocks. In response, Khoei fired a shot in the air, which dispersed the crowd temporarily. The problem was, they came back with guns and started shooting at Khoei’s people. The shooting lasted 90 minutes, and Khoei and his party eventually gave up. Riyad Nouri, Sadr’s brother-in-law then ordered that Khoei be taken to Sadr’s residence in the city. As they walked out of the shrine, Mahdi Army militiamen stabbed Khoei and the custodian, killing the latter. Bleeding, Khoei was dumped on the street in front of Muqtada’s house, but Sadr ordered Khoei to be taken away. He and some of his followers tried to hide out in a surrounding shop, but he was eventually found, and shot. A few of Khoei’s entourage were able to escape and went to an American military base in the city, pleading for help. They refused to do so, and ordered the party to leave the country. Khoei’s people then went to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, but he was just as unhelpful. Muqtada immediately claimed he had nothing to do with the murder, and said that he actually sent his followers to try to protect Khoei. The Sadr and Khoei families had competed with each other over standing and position within the Shiite religious community for several decades. With the country in flux after the fall of Saddam, Sadr seemed to feel that he could take this rivalry to the next level by having his opponent assassinated in the street, foreshadowing how his Mahdi Army would operate during the coming civil war.

Khoei’s brutal death could not be ignored, and the U.S. and Iraqi authorities were forced to act. In June 2003, Khoei’s murder was investigated, and in August 2003, Judge Raed Juhi issued an arrest warrant for Sadr, and two dozen of his followers. That included Mustafa al-Yacoubi and RiyadNouri, two senior leaders, who had helped keep the Sadr movement alive after Sadr’s father was killed by Saddam in 1999. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was scared to carry out the order however. The CPA did not know how to deal with Sadr. Even though they did not consider him a powerful leader yet, they were afraid that if he was arrested, Sadr would become a nationalist leader, and turn Shiites against the Coalition. If they killed him, he could become a martyr. Those questions, led the U.S. to sit on the warrant.

The American indecision on the matter lasted for several months, but when they finally did act, it led to the first Sadrist uprising. In September 2003, for example, there were plans to move on Sadr, but then they were canceled. Finally, on March 28, 2004, the CPA shut down Sadr’s newspaper al-Hawza for inciting violence. Then on April 3, General Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of Coalition forces in Iraq told CPA head Paul Bremer that he was going after Mustafa Yacoubi for the Khoei murder. When the U.S. arrested Yacoubi, Sadr’s followers quickly rallied to his aid, and began fighting the Americans. This led to the first uprising by Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army. Fighting took place in the cities of Najaf, Baghdad, Nasiriyah, Amarah, Kufa, (1) and Kut. Many of the Iraqi and Coalition forces folded in the face of this onslaught. Iraqi police in Baghdad’s Sadr City abandoned their posts, the Mahdi Army took over police stations in Kufa, Ukrainian and Italian troops were forced to withdraw from Kut and Nasiriyah, the Spanish and Salvadorans in Najaf, and the Bulgarians in Karbala were almost overrun. By May, Shiite leaders had brokered a cease-fire, and the fighting eventually ended. Sadr used the uprising to gain more power. He attempted to rally popular support against the Americans, which has become a mainstay of his message and appeal. With little religious training, Sadr also attempted to use his standing with the street to force his way up the Shiite hierarchy, and challenge the established clerics.
Sadr has used his political connections to escape arrest for the Khoei murder
Many of the Sadrists with warrants against them were eventually detained, but then they were released, and the case against all of them was compromised for political expediency. Riyad Nouri was arrested on May 23, 2004, but had the charges against him dropped on August 14, 2005. Yacoubi was set free that same day. When the December 2005 elections came around, Ibrahim al-Jaafari of the Dawa party promised to release the remaining Sadrist lieutenants, and have the murder case dropped against them and Muqtada, if his movement would support Jaafari’s bid to be prime minister. After Jaafari was confirmed in office, the Sadrists were released, and the testimony against Muqtada was changed so that he was no longer implicated in Khoei’s death. Sadr himself ended up leaving Iraq in 2007 for Qom, Iran, to escape the United States’ Surge, and to attend religious training. When he decided to publicly return to Iraq in January 2011, he was afraid that the government would revive the warrant against him. He didn’t have to worry however, because once again in a political deal, Sadr’s murder charge was dropped in return for supporting Nouri al-Maliki’s second term as premier. Despite all the missteps that Sadr has made, and all the crackdowns by the United States and Iraqi governments, he has proven to be a survivor. Each time a new Iraqi government has been formed, he has played a pivotal role. That in turn, has repeatedly allowed him to escape prosecution, and have his followers released from prison.

The recent announcement by the Iraqi Supreme Judicial Council that there is no longer a case against Muqtada al-Sadr is just the latest example of the political favors he has been able to draw upon. Today, Sadr sits as one of the main supporters of Prime Minister Maliki. As a result, his politicians have gained important positions in the new government, the Sadrists regained control of Maysan province, and many of his militiamen were released from jail. Sadr has also been able to come and go from Iraq as he pleases, with assurances that the arrest warrant against him will not be enforced. Despite the trappings of democracy, such as elections, a parliament, etc., the country does not have the rule of law. Maliki and other premiers have been able to bend the courts to their will. Even the murder of a prominent cleric like Sayid Abdul Majid al-Khoei can be suddenly overlooked, and the case made to disappear. As long as Maliki needs Sadr’s backing he can be assured that the assassination of Khoei will not be an issue.


1. San Francisco Chronicle, “30 killed in Iraq clashes after arrest of cleric’s aide,” 4/5/04


Ahmed, Hamid, “Gunmen Kill Sadrist Official in Iraq,” Associated Press, 4/11/08

Anderson, Jon Lee, “The Uprising,” New Yorker, 5/3/04

Cochrane, Marisa, “The Fragmentation of the Sadrist Movement,” Institute for the Study of War, January 2009

Cockburn, Patrick, Muqtada, Muqtada Al-Sadr, The Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq, New York, London, Toronto, Sydney: Scribner, 2008

Collier, Robert, “Iraq’s Shiites show strength on once-banned pilgrimage,” San Francisco Chronicle, 4/23/03
-“U.S. risks turning Shiite cleric into contender,” San Francisco Chronicle, 4/12/04

Hauslohner, Abigail, “Iraq Assassination Reignites Tensions,” Time, 4/11/08

Hendawi, Hamza and Abdul-Zahra, Qassim, “Al-Sadr shift: away from politics and favoring fight,” Associated Press, 4/24/08

Haider al-Khoei, “The Untold Story: Khoei Murder,” 7/10/07

Knights, Michael, “Iran in Iraq: the Role of al-Sadr,” Real Clear World,” 2/9/11

McGeary, Johanna, “New Thugs On The Block,” Time, 4/19/04

Packer, George, The Assassins’ Gate, America In Iraq, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005

Parker, Ned, “Dozens of Iraqis pardoned at Sadr movement’s behest,” Los Angeles Times, 7/27/11

Risen, James, State of War; The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, New York, London, Toronto, Sydney: Free Press, 2006

San Francisco Chronicle, “30 killed in Iraq clashes after arrest of cleric’s aide,” 4/5/04

Sarhan, Saad and Davis, Aaron, “Cleric Moqtada al-Sadr returns to Iraq after self-imposed exile,” Washington Post, 1/6/11

Shadid, Anthony, “Sadr’s Disciples Rise Again To Play Pivotal Role in Iraq,” Washington Post, 8/30/05

Shadid, Anthony and Leland, John, “Anti-U.S. Cleric Returns to Iraq, and to Power,” New York Times, 1/5/11

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, “Al-Sadr fled to Iran due to assassination fears,” 1/26/11

Al-Tayyeb, Mouhammed, “Sadr no longer suspected of killing Abdul Majid al-Khoei,” AK News, 10/24/11


Anonymous said...

What a slip by the US not to have dealt with him at the time, when they called the shots. They let Iran-fostered groups fill the vacuum. This is just part of the clear lack of foresight the US had when it occupied the country the year before that. So focussed on WMDs and Baathists that political development of Iraq was not adequately controlled.

It's outrageous that Sadr, in many ways the shiite equivalent to Zarqawi, is allowed to play a role in Iraqi politics. To me, the fact that he has managed to maintain such influence just goes to show how easily the uneducated and ignorant can be manipulated in a 'democratic' society. The fact that the charges can be dropped with seemingly no accountability gives you a clue as to the increasing impunity with which Maliki and his henchmen can act.

Joel Wing said...

Yes, the CPA period was chaotic in all different ways. There was also little coordination between it and the military because Bremer and Gen. Sanchez did not get along. It's not surprising then that there was indecision and incompetence in dealing with Sadr.

Since then Sadr has proven to be quite a survivor. Despite all the mistakes he's made, and he's made plenty, he's still around, and is right back where he was in 2006 as one of the mainstays of the government.

It should also come as no shock that the charges against him have been dropped because Iraq lacks rule of law. The powerful are completely exempt, and the average Iraqi can look forward to treatment akin to Saddam's time with a good beating expected to get a confession out of them.