The headquarters of muqtada al-Sadr lies in the market district of Najaf, a decrepit quarter of muddy alleys and dank shops in the shadow of the Shrine of Imam Ali. Black-turbaned bodyguards carrying pistols block the doorway, pushing back a crowd yearning for an audience with the cleric. Al-Sadr's assistant leads a reporter up a staircase to a cell-like meeting room. Moments later al-Sadr, the son of a Shiite leader gunned down by Saddam Hussein's henchmen in 1999, strides into the room. A burly figure with thick brows and fierce eyes, he greets his visitor with a stiff smile, exposing a chipped front tooth.
Since Saddam's fall, al-Sadr has become one of the most strident anti-American voices in Iraq. His ties to a powerful Iran-based Iraqi cleric who has called for a violent campaign against U.S. forces have raised concerns of radicalization among Iraqi Shiites. Al-Sadr denies any relation to the cleric in Iran. "He is not a friend," al-Sadr insists. Still, al-Sadr makes no attempt to conceal his antipathy toward America. Asked if he was grateful to U.S. forces for ridding Iraq of Saddam, he shrugs. "We are grateful to God," he says. "Everything that happens is determined by God."
Some now say that al-Sadr considers himself God's agent of vengeance. In recent days the young cleric has emerged as the central figure in a dark tale of jealousy and murder that has caused other religious leaders in Najaf to barricade themselves behind locked doors. It is a story involving CIA operatives, a large stash of dollars hidden in clerical robes and a slaughter at one of the most sacred shrines of Shiite Islam. The principal victim, Abdel Majid al-Khoei, 41, was a Shiite leader and London-based Iraqi exile who had returned to Najaf under U.S. military protection. Al-Khoei was a key figure in U.S. efforts to nurture moderate leaders in post-Saddam Iraq--and a counterweight to radical clerics backed by Iran. At first, al-Khoei's murder seemed the spontaneous act of a mob incensed about his U.S. ties and his association with a Baathist cleric--who was killed alongside him. But evidence suggests the murder, which occurred at the doorway of al-Sadr's headquarters, was part of a vicious power struggle that is likely to continue.
Al-Khoei was born and raised in Najaf, a desert city near the Euphrates River, 80 miles south of Baghdad. The son of Grand Ayatollah Abolqassem al-Khoei, the supreme spiritual leader of the Shiite--majority in Iraq, al-Khoei showed a flair for leadership during the uprising that swept Shiite regions at the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. After rebels drove out the Baathists, he oversaw the creation of a local council to run Najaf and issued religious decrees forbidding the looting of government buildings. But after a 13-day rebellion, Saddam sent tanks into Najaf, crushing the resistance. Security forces arrested 18,000 people, including al-Khoei's brother, who was never seen again.
Al-Khoei fled ahead of the Iraqi forces and later settled in London with his wife and four children. He ran the Al-Khoei Foundation, which built orphanages and schools in the Middle East and Asia, and provided help for Shiites in southern Iraq. He traveled widely, preaching the virtues of democracy. But he felt an exile's longing to return home.
Early this year he was approached by the CIA in London and offered U.S. protection if he would help rebuild Iraq after the war. Accompanied by four other Iraqi exiles and two Americans, al-Khoei flew to Bahrain, where he waited for Saddam's fall. The U.S. military later flew him to an air base in Iraq. Upon arrival, according to people who accompanied him, al-Khoei asked where they were. "We're in An Nasariya," said one Iraqi. "I can smell it." Al-Khoei lit up a cigarette, and looked up at the sky. "Where else would you see such an array of stars but Iraq?" he asked. "In London, it's too cloudy to see any."
Al-Khoei flew into Najaf with Marine--escorts on April 3, hours after the Baathists fled. Hunkered down in a recently abandoned house, al-Khoei--an excellent cook from his student days at a Najaf seminary--whipped up a meal from some bread and eggs the family had left behind, placing money for them on the kitchen table. In the busy week that followed, he paid visits to key clerics in Najaf, including his father's successor, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who issued a fatwa urging followers to cooperate with U.S. troops. Al-Khoei organized a civilian council to get electricity and water flowing and return the police to the streets. The CIA had reportedly given him as much as $13 million, with which he planned to pay workers' salaries and begin reconstructing the city. (Asked about this, a knowledgeable U.S. official said "there is always money in helping people who are trying to do the right thing," but added that estimates of the sum provided to al-Khoei "are way off the mark." Officials at the Al-Khoei Foundation denied that he had gotten CIA funds.) Friends say he carried $100,000 in a satchel he wore beneath his gray robe.
From his headquarters beside the Shrine of Imam Ali, al-Sadr watched al-Khoei's return with consternation. Like the al-Khoei clan, al-Sadr's family had a long history of anti-Saddam activism. Muqtada's father, Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr, once bravely delivered political speeches before Friday prayers at the Kufa Mosque outside Najaf, demanding religious freedom and the release of Shiite prisoners. But early in 1999, the elder al-Sadr was driving with two sons through Najaf when several men leapt from a vehicle and fired dozens of rounds at al-Sadr's car, killing everyone inside. According to Shiite sources, the 30-year-old Muqtada now believes that he should inherit the leadership role of his martyred father.
Shortly after Saddam's fall, thousands of the late al-Sadr's followers swarmed over the black-bearded son when he visited the Shrine of Imam Ali. Days later they roared in adulation when he returned to the Kufa Mosque and, wearing a white burial shroud in honor of his father, delivered a ringing speech in which he hailed his father as "a prophet of God."
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." It also instructed the cleric's followers to "raise people's awareness of the Great Satan's plans and of the means to abort them." 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. 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.
The convoy rolled through the dusty streets, which narrowed as they reached the souk; merchants looked up curiously at the motorcade from their trays of incense, rosary beads and photographs of revered Shiite leaders. Al-Khoei and his entourage approached the ornate main gate, known as the Bab al-Souk. 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.
The murder of al-Khoei sent a spasm of fear coursing through Najaf. Grand Ayatollah Sistani locked himself in his house, protected by armed men. Last week the police arrested four suspects in the murders and identified them as followers of al-Sadr. In the interview with NEWSWEEK, al-Sadr insisted that the killers were "not my supporters" and said he had tried to save al-Khoei as he sought refuge in his home. "I sent five people to drive the murderers away, but they were beaten," he said. "I wanted to come out myself, but I was afraid." He glared at a reporter who pressed him about the killings. "Why do you want to discuss this?" he demanded. Asked how he had felt about al-Khoei's return from exile, he shrugged dismissively: "He's gone. Why talk about him?"
Later that morning al-Sadr returned triumphantly to the Kufa Mosque on the west bank of the Euphrates to deliver his fourth speech since the fall of Saddam. Thousands packed the mosque's courtyard in 100-degree heat to hear the cleric call for banning the sale of alcohol in Iraq and forbidding women from wearing jewelry. "We are ready. We are your followers," the crowd roared. Many swarmed ecstatically around their new leader as he made his exit through a corridor leading from the niche marking the spot where Imam Ali was stabbed to death in the seventh century. Then al-Sadr climbed into a battered Toyota and, with his armed bodyguards, drove back to his headquarters in the shadow of the shrine.