Many people only vaguely remember what happened on 10th April 2003 in Najaf. A Shia cleric was stabbed to death outside Iraq’s holiest shrine. On the day, it was simply a murder carried out by blood thirsty terrorists, but it later played an important role in Ibrahim Al-Ja’fari’s election which saw him become Prime Minister of Iraq. The criminals who were jailed for the murder were later released by the Iraqi government who silenced the case and stood in the way of justice.
Here is a detailed account of everything that happened. Not just on that specific day, but what happened before and after. This is the story of the life and death of Sayyid Abdul Majid Al-Khoei.
Sayyid Abdul Majid Al-Khoei was born on 16th August 1962 in Najaf. He decided to follow the foot-steps of his father, Grand Ayatullah Abul Qasim Al-Khoei who was the primus inter pares of Shia scholars, by studying Islamic studies at a very young age. He became a cleric at the age of 16 and studied under the supervision of his father. He got married in 1983 and continued to study under his father until 1991.
One day after the Gulf War cease-fire, the Shia Arab’s decided to launch massive attacks across the country due to the current state of the Iraqi army. Many soldiers and officers also joined the uprising. The Kurd’s soon followed and fought for their region in Kurdistan.
Al-Khoei, aged 29 at the time, took part in the uprising and was regularly transporting weapons and fighters between Najaf and its sister city Kerbala. He was also involved in the operations against government buildings in Najaf.
Al-Khoei then set off on a dangerous journey south from Najaf to make contact with the allied forces and receive information about an expected intervention. It took him two days to finally find the French forces stationed in Iraq. They had arranged a meeting for him with General Norman Schwartzkopf. After spending a few days at their base, he was told the General wasn’t coming. He knew the US forces were not going to help. Meanwhile, the Republican Guards had surrounded Najaf and it was impossible for him to go back undetected. His younger brother Ibrahim was arrested by the security forces in Najaf and executed. His older brother and father were arrested and forced to appear on national television with Saddam.
The Republican Guards in Baghdad were left untouched by the allies and the US even allowed them to fly their helicopters which were used in the counter-offensive against the rebels. The uprising, which lasted barely over a month, was brutally crushed. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi’s were massacred.
Al-Khoei left Iraq with Abu Tareq, a Ba’ath army officer who defected and joined the rebels. His immediate family managed to escape the siege on Najaf and were smuggled out to Iran. He went to London via Saudi Arabia where he was later re-united with his family.
When he came to London he immediately began working in the Al-Khoei Foundation. A charitable organization set up by his father in 1989. The Foundation was set up to establish welfare, social, cultural, and educational institutions for Muslims worldwide. It has schools, mosques, accommodation halls, orphanages and libraries in over 10 countries.
His father who was still under house arrest in Najaf died in 1992 due to ill health.
In 1994, his older brother, Sayyid Mohammed Taqi Al-Khoei was assassinated in a planned car ‘accident’. The Ba’ath regime knew that every Thursday night, he would travel to Kerbala to visit the shrine of Imam Hussein. A lorry was parked sideways in the middle of the Kerbala-Najaf highway, and as he was returning his vehicle smashed straight into it in pitch black darkness. The highway was then closed at both ends preventing anyone from coming to his aide.
His driver, his brother in-law (with his 6 year old son) were all killed instantly. Sayyid Mohammed Taqi survived the initial crash but bled to death in the middle of the highway.
After his brother’s death, Al-Khoei became the Secretary General of the Al-Khoei Foundation and continued to work for the Shia community. Soon the Foundation became a UN-affiliated consultative body. The first ever Shia institution to have such status.
In London, it was always his dream to go back to Iraq. He became an active member of the Iraqi opposition and an outspoken critic of the Ba’ath regime. He was also a successful businessman.
He later became friends with members of the Jordanian Royal family, most notably the late King Hussein and his brother, Prince Hassan.
A few months before the war, he was approached by the American government who told him of their plans to invade Iraq and topple Saddam. He flew out to Washington DC and had several meetings with the CIA and officials at the Pentagon. Back in London, he began recruiting members for a committee to help keep order and provide humanitarian aid to the south.
He managed to round up 25 Iraqis from the US and UK to go with him. He had talks with Tony Blair regarding Iraq before he left, but because the British government had decided they would only control Basra, they were not involved in his project to help re-build Najaf.
Back to Iraq
All 25 men gathered at his house on 27th March 2003 and at 6am the following morning they left for Gatwick Airport. They boarded a private jet and landed in a US military base in Bahrain. Al-Khoei left Bahrain on 3rd April with Abu Tareq (the former Ba’ath officer), Ma’ad Fayadh (journalist for Al-Sharq Al-Awsat Newspaper), Hazim Al-Sha’lan (former Iraqi Defence Minister) and Mahir Al-Yasseri (a US citizen from Detroit). They boarded a US military plane and landed in Nasiriya at 2am. The men stayed in Nasiriya in the morning and met with the local tribes before leaving for Najaf.
In Najaf, Al-Khoei helped negotiate a peaceful withdrawal of the US armed forces from Najaf’s “old city”. Many of the residents were almost up in arms when the US forces approached but an order was given to stand down and retreat. The reason for this sensitivity is because the Imam Ali shrine is in the heart of the “old city”. Imam Ali is regarded by the Shia Muslims as the rightful successor to Prophet Mohammed, and one resident made it clear that they would not tolerate American presence near this holy site…“City…yes…Imam Ali…no”
The rest of his colleagues arrived to Najaf on 9th April. The US had set up base at a college in Najaf a few km away from the “old city”. When the others arrived, they moved out of the base in Nissan pick-up trucks and spent the night in Sayyid Mohammed Taqi’s former house. His only bodyguards were a few armed Najaf residents who at all times guarded the entrance of the house, however when they would travel, it would be in a US military convoy. “Abu Ali”, who was a CIA agent, also accompanied them.
Speaking to Amir Taheri on 9th April he said “I still cannot believe I am talking to you from Najaf…free Najaf!”
Al-Khoei took almost $700,000 in cash with him to Iraq. The money was in a briefcase in $100 notes and was with him most of the time. He gave each of his colleagues $10,000 and planned to spend the rest during his stay in Najaf. In order to rely less on military convoys, he bought a few cars from the Al-Bahash family in Najaf to use as transport. By 10th April 2003, around $380,000 remained with him. The money was not returned to his family and was most likely stolen by someone who was with him the night before his murder.
The morning of 10th April, most of the men were in Sayyid Mohammed Taqi’s house. Al-Khoei spent the night in Laith Al-Bahash’s (Najaf resident) house. They met up and he briefed them of his plans for the day. They were to accompany Hayder Al-Killidar, the custodian of the holy shrine, to visit the shrine, have a press conference there and then go to the Najaf hotel to meet with Najaf’s prominent figures.
They left to go to the shrine and after visiting the tomb of Imam Ali, they went to a room on the courtyard where Al-Khoei’s father, mother and brothers are buried.
They then walked across the courtyard and entered the “Killidariya” (the office of the custodian of the shrine). The office has a room and main hall. They were all seated at the main hall when all of a sudden two men walked up to the window and started shouting “Yes Yes for Al-Sadr”. Soon more men joined them and they started banging on the windows shouting pro-Sadr slogans such as “Long Live Al-Sadr”. Al-Khoei asked for a speaker phone to address the angry crowd but they refused to hear him. Things got more serious when they broke the window. When they broke the window, Al-Khoei took out his pistol and fired a single shot into the air in the hope of forcing them to retreat.
One of the Sadrists then opened fire from inside the shrine directly towards the office. Soon all the men inside the Killidariya came under fire. It started with sporadic bursts and then turned into heavy gunfire. Most of them took refuge inside the room in the Killidariya to stay away from the windows and gunfire.
Al-Khoei carried a 9mm pistol. Mahir Al-Yasseri, an American Iraqi who came to help Al-Khoei, had an AK-47. There was another pistol and AK-47 with the group.
As they had very limited ammunition, they tried their best to conserve their bullets and would only fire blindly when the Sadrists approached the door of the office. Heavily out-numbered and out-gunned it wasn’t long before they ran out of ammunition. Al-Yasseri stood by the window and fired the remaining bullets of his gun, when the Sadrists returned fire a bullet hit him just beneath the bullet-proof vest he was wearing and he fell to the floor. He was dragged away from the hall and into the room. He died soon after.
At this point Sayyid Abdul Majid walked out of the Killidariya and shouted at the angry mob. “You have just killed a Sayyid [descendant of the Prophet]…this is a holy shrine…why are you doing this?” While he was speaking, someone shot him in the hand and a few of his fingers were severed. He ran back to the Killidariya where they wrapped a scarf around his hand to stop the bleeding.
Out of ammunition and with no escape route, the men surrendered by waving a white shirt at the mob. Of the two dozen men with him, only a handful remained up to this point. After the first few shots were fired, most of the people with Al-Khoei left him and ran away. Five of the Sadrists who came into the room were clerics. Two of them included Riyadh Al-Noori (head of the Sadr Movement in Najaf) and Kais Al-Jaizany (official spokesmen for the movement). After searching the entire room they emptied everyone’s pockets and stole their money, mobile phones, and passports. The very first thing Kais Al-Jaizany said was “Where is Abdul Majid Al-Khoei? [deliberately not using the title “Sayyid”]…Where is the pig son of a pig? Which one of you is Abdul Majid?”
The reason for this aggressive and abusive behavior was because the Sadr family have a bad history with the Al-Khoei family. Although Sayyid Mohammed Baqir Al-Sadr was one of Sayyid Abul Qasim Al-Khoei’s best students, it was his cousin, Sayyid Mohammed Sadiq Al-Sadr who fell out with the much older Al-Khoei. Moqtada Al-Sadr is the son of Sayyid Mohammed Sadiq. Sayyid Abdul Majid had been an enemy for the Sadr Movement ever since he left Iraq. Many of the Sadrists regarded him as a traitor who left Iraq to live a life of luxury in England. On the other hand, many of Al-Khoei’s supporters regard Sayyid Mohammed Sadiq Al-Sadr as a ba’athist puppet who was killed only when he was of no more use to Saddam’s regime.
In December 2002, Al-Khoei was publicly heckled in Iran during a speech he gave to an Iraqi audience. Some Sadrists shouted “Go back to America” and “traitor”.
Once in Najaf, Al-Khoei was advised to visit Moqtada Al-Sadr and try to put aside the differences between the two families. Al-Khoei, around 15 years Moqtada’s senior and with more religious credentials, refused to visit him and even referred to him as a “za’toot” (derogative term meaning “child”). From the very first day he arrived to Najaf, he was followed by a large group of men. When warned by his colleagues that he was being followed, Al-Khoei responded by saying they were only trying to intimidate him.
Al-Khoei replied “I am Abdul Majid. What do you want from me?” Kais Al-Jaizany then said “We have to take you to Sayyid Moqtada to see what he has to say about you”
They agreed to go to Moqtada’s office which is less than 100m away from the shrine.
They then took off Al-Khoei’s clerical robes as well as his bullet proof vest. Their hands were then tied behind their backs. A clear indication that the Sadrists did not have peaceful intentions.
As they were walking out of the “Killidariya” the men were shocked to find around 200 armed men waiting for them inside the courtyard of the shrine. Some were armed with AK-47’s and pistols, but the vast majority wielded knives, daggers and swords.
They were led out of the office in a straight line with Al-Khoei at the front. One by one, they started to come forward and strike him with their knives and swords. Although he was wearing a black ‘dishdasha’ it wasn’t hard to tell that he was covered in blood. Sheikh Bilal, a British citizen who was with him at the time, said “At first I didn’t realise he was bleeding, but when I saw his black clothes shining, I knew it was blood”.
In the mêlée and confusion that followed, Ma’ad Fayadh realised his hands had become loose, he managed to escape while everyone else was concentrating on their main targets. The only three people with their hands tied walking behind Al-Khoei at this point were Sheikh Bilal, Hayder Al-Killidar and Hamid Al-Timimi (An American who also came to help Al-Khoei)
Hayder Al-Killidar did not even make the short distance out of the shrine. He was brutally hacked to death inside the courtyard.
Two Sadrists either side of Al-Khoei held him upright and helped him walk while the others would come to slash and stab him. They then reached Moqtada’s office and were crouched on the floor against the wall with their hands still tied behind their backs.
Al-Khoei at this point was bleeding profusely and had difficulty sitting up straight. Clerics kept walking in and out of Moqtada’s office whispering with each other. Sheikh Bilal told them “Cant you see he is going to bleed to death? What do you want from us? This man is going to die, what ever it is you want to do, do it now” at this point a cleric came up to him and slapped him very hard across the face.
Another Sadrist came over next to Al-Khoei saying “Look at you now…In London you were a prince…why did you come back?” Kais Al-Jaizany then came with blood stains all over his clerical robes and walked into the office. He came out soon later and said “The Sayyid [Moqtada] says ‘take him away and kill him in your own special way”
The three men briefly took refuge with the help of an owner of a sewing machine repair shop directly opposite Moqtada’s office and were quickly rushed inside. He took them inside his shop and with the help of his two sons, untied their hands, and gave them some water to drink. Al-Khoei was the only one out of three who couldn’t walk or talk properly and so they had him lie down on his back while they took off his ‘dishdasha’ and started cleaning the wounds.
Al-Khoei had lost a lot of blood and knew he was not going to live for much longer. He took his ‘aqiq’ ring off his hand and gave it to Sheikh Bilal to return to his family. Breathing slowly, but still conscience he managed to say “Bury me next to my father”
The shop owner in an attempt to get rid of the Sadrists getting louder and louder at his door told them “He is dead, what do you want from him? You have killed him”. A Sadrist outside shouted “We want to come inside and make sure”
The shop owner decided to hide Sheikh Bilal and Hamid Al-Timimi inside a very small closet and he dragged Al-Khoei’s body inside a room and locked the door from the outside. The Sadrists broke the window of the shop and burst into the small shop. They kicked down the door that was locked and dragged the body from his hands. They dragged the body from the shop to the roundabout nearby while continuously stabbing and slashing his body. When they reached the roundabout Al-Khoei was still breathing, so a Sadrist pulled out an AK-47 and finished him off with a single bullet.
By nightfall everyone who was with Al-Khoei had made it back to the US base. Abu Tareq, who fled the scene after the very first shot was fired, went to the house they were staying in and hid there for almost 2 hours. The CIA had instructed the men that if they were ever in any sort of trouble to call “Abu Ali” immediately. Abu Tareq, the only one with a secure Thuraya satellite phone, did not call. He stayed inside the house till everything settled down and then went to the base.
The US military officials had no idea what was going on only a few km away from their base because the only man who could have informed them decided not to.
The men pleaded with the US forces to do something about the criminals who took part in the murder, and if not, at least investigate what happened. The Americans refused to do anything about the murder and ordered everyone who had come with Al-Khoei to leave Iraq. They set a date for their flight out of Iraq.
Meanwhile, the men tried to get help from Ayatullah Sistani. His son told them “The Sayyid [Sistani] is not here”. Of course it had been years since Ayatullah Sistani ever left his house and it was obvious he was lying and did not want to help.
Bearing in mind the crimes were committed in broad daylight in front of hundreds of eye-witnesses, it wasn’t long before the names of the men who were involved began circulating around the city and later even posted on the internet.
The men involved in the murder of Al-Khoei are in two groups. The clerics involved in encouraging the crowds to attack and the men who actually took part in the stabbings. The following names are the Sadrist scholars who either “arrested” the men or encouraged the crowds:
Sheikh Yassir Saleh Abul Karim Al-Modhafar
Sheikh Hassan Dakhil
Sayyid Najah Layij Mohammed
Sheikh Uday Al-Bahadli
Sheikh Abdul Sattar Al-Bahadli
Sayyid Riyadh Al-Noori
Sayyid Awn Al-Nabi Al-Mousawi
Sheikh Kais Al-Jaizany
Sayyid Hazim Al-Mousawi
Sayyid Abbas Al-Mousawi
Sheikh Ahmad Al-Shaybani
Sheikh Mohammed Hayyawi
Sheikh Mohammed Hassan Al-Amari
Sheikh Amjad Ashoor Al-Bahadli
These are the men who took part in the actual murder (and what they did):
Ihsan Al-Ka’by (stabbed him and fired last shot which killed him)
Fadhil Al-Ka’by (stabbed him)
Karrar Ali Al-Hakim (stabbed him)
Ali Kassar (stabbed him)
Abbas Ali Al-Baghdadi (stabbed him)
Mahir Ali Al-Baghdadi (stabbed him)
Ahmad Ayed Al-Baghdadi (stabbed him)
Ali Al-Nadawi (fired shots into the office)
Jawad Ma’joona (fired shots, stabbed him and stole his watch)
Mohsin Ma’joona (fired shots and stabbed him)
Hussein Jawad Al-A’war (stabbed him)
Hassan Jawad Al-A’war (stabbed him)
Saeb Hamoody (stabbed him)
Samir Al-Hilo (stabbed him)
Mohammed Hassan Al-Amari (stabbed him)
Abu Akram (stabbed him)
Arif Al-Basrawi (stabbed him)
Najah Al-Majnoon (stabbed him)
Al-Khoei’s body lay lifeless on the street for several hours before his in-law’s family came to wash and bury his body in a special room in the court-yard of the shrine next to his father. A 3-day mourning ceremony was held in Najaf for people to pay their respects to Al-Khoei and another ceremony was organised on the 40th day after his death. Much to the surprise of everyone, Moqtada Al-Sadr himself attended the commemoration. Al-Sadr has denied any involvement in the killing and has even claimed he in fact sent men to help Al-Khoei. He wanted to be seen mourning for Al-Khoei and so attended attended the “fatiha”.
As part of an investigation into the murder, Al-Khoei’s body was later exhumed in secret in order to gather evidence and was re-buried in the same place.
A few months later, an Iraqi Investigative Judge Raed Juhi (who was also responsible for the Saddam Hussein case) issued warrants for over a dozen men implicated in the murder. Only of those arrest warrants was never served. It was for Moqtada Al-Sadr. Paul Bremer, the CPA head, claims in his book “My Year in Iraq” that everything had been set for the arrest of Moqtada, but the US Marines decided to pull out at the last minute out of fear of retaliation. It was supposed to be an Iraqi operation with the US forces only there in case anything went wrong. When the US forces backed out the Iraqi forces refused to arrest Al-Sadr.
Raed Juhi, who has received multiple death threats by the Sadrists, has said many times that after he finished his report he came to the conclusion that there is strong evidence implicating Moqtada Al-Sadr in the murder. The other warrants were served and the men were soon arrested by the Iraqi police and imprisoned.
The criminals remained in police custody until just after the December 2005 elections. The United Iraqi Alliance after winning the elections for the second time had to choose a new Prime Minister. The two men who battled for this seat were Ibrahim Al-Ja’fari and Adel Abdul Mahdi. Ibrahim Al-Ja’fari allegedly promised Moqtada Al-Sadr that he would release the prisoners involved in Al-Khoei’s murder and silence the case if the Sadrists would vote for him.
Ibrahim Al-Ja’fari became Prime Minister after winning 64 votes to 63. All the Sadrist MP’s voted for him. Soon after, the prisoners were released and the testimonies of many of the eye-witnesses were deliberately changed in order to make Moqtada Al-Sadr look like an innocent bystander who had no role in the murder.
There are two accounts of how the testimonies were changed. Some say that it was simply edited by the government who removed evidence linking Al-Sadr to the murder and others say the eye-witnesses who testified against Al-Sadr were re-called by an Iraqi judge who read out their testimonies in the presence of high ranking Sadrists. Fearing for their lives, the eye-witnesses then claimed that their original testimonies were false.
Which ever account is true, one thing is for certain…the report submitted to the Iraqi government by Raed Al-Juhi, is not the same report they have now.