THE clerics were butchered in a place of faith, under the splendid gold dome of Iraq’s holiest site and burial place of the first Imam of Shia Islam.
Son of a former Grand Ayatollah and leader of Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority, Abdul Majid al-Khoei, a leading moderate who had spent 12 years in exile in London, was mobbed at the Grand Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf after defending another cleric who had been previously loyal to Saddam Hussein.
Mr al-Khoei, 41, had returned to Iraq under coalition protection on 3 April to help bring order to the city - the third-holiest for the world’s 120 million Shiites behind Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.
Tony Blair, who met with Mr al-Khoei, alongside other religious leaders, in the aftermath of the 11 September terrorist attacks, last night led the tributes for the moderate cleric.
Mr al-Khoei was in a vanguard of exiles sent to rebuild order in areas subdued by coalition forces.
"People attacked and killed both of them inside the mosque," said Ali Assayid Haider, a mullah who travelled from Basra for a meeting of Islamic leaders.
The clerics had been discussing control of the shrine, which is the reputed burial place of Ali, the fourth Caliph of Islam, the son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet Muhammad.
The meeting was called after US troops were forced to beat a wary retreat when confronted by a furious crowd as they approached the mosque last week.
The building, with its silver-covered tomb, ceramic ornamented walls and resplendent dome and minarets, had been had been under the control of Haider al-Kadar, widely disliked because of his role as a member of Saddam Hussein’s Ministry of Religion.
In a gesture of reconciliation, Mr al-Kadar was accompanied to the shrine by Mr al-Khoei.
When the two men appeared at the shrine, members of another faction loyal to a different mullah, Mohammed Braga al Saddar, verbally assaulted Mr al-Kadar.
"Al-Kadar was an animal," said Adil Adnan al-Moussawi, 25, who witnessed the confrontation. "The people were shouting, ‘they hate him, he should not be here’."
As the threat of violence grew, some witnesses said Mr al-Khoei produced a gun and fired one or two shots, others said he fired into the air and into the crowd.
Both men were then rushed by the crowd and hacked to death with swords and knives, according to witnesses.
Little over a week ago, Mr al-Khoei had been preparing to lead a mission, sponsored by the United States, to help reconstruct Iraq post-conflict.
Before leaving, he had met with Tony Blair for talks on the work he planned to undertake.
One of his key tasks was to assuage Shia Muslims’ fears that the 7th-century religious sites and treasures were not a target of coalition forces.
Speaking from Iraq, earlier this week, he said: "I spoke to the crowd through a microphone and on the town’s local radio, telling them to calm down.
"I said that I was an Iraqi who had been forced to leave for London, but I had returned - a sign that things were now getting better and were safe."
Mr al-Khoei, who was the father of four children, was said to be revered in southern Iraq. He was the son of the Grand Ayatollah Abulqasim al-Khoei, who was the religion’s spiritual leader during the Shiite uprising against Saddam in 1991.
Escaping Iraq for Kilburn in London, Mr al-Khoei fled the brutal suppression which followed, becoming the leader of the al-Khoei Foundation, an international philanthropic organisation which promotes the welfare of the Shia and some non-Shia Muslim communities in the UK and abroad.
The Prime Minister last night said: "I am saddened and appalled at the assassination of Abdul Majid al-Khoei. I met him on several occasions both here in Downing Street and when he welcomed me to the al-Khoei Foundation in London in 2001. He was a religious leader who embodied hope and reconciliation and who was committed to building a better future for the people of Iraq.
"I would like to express my sincere condolences to the family of Abdul Majid al-Khoei and to the al-Khoei Foundation."
In London, Dr Fadhel Milani, a trustee at the foundation, said he had lost "a very close friend" who was "a victim of anarchy".
Dr Milani said: "This action was a very sad tragedy and it is a shock for everybody because he was a very helpful and friendly man.
"Majid al-Khoei was protecting al-Kadar but he himself has become a victim. It is very sad."
The apparent collapse of theocratic control in Saddam’s often oppressed religious opposition will shock coalition commanders hoping to use mullahs to persuade Iraqis to keep the peace.
Over the last 12 years, a number of leading Shia clerics, including Grand Ayatollah Gharavi in 1998, have been assassinated by Saddam’s henchmen, the majority of whom belong to the ruling Sunni minority.
Najaf, whose name in Arabic means "a high land", is about 100 miles south of Baghdad, and is known as the spiritual, literary and scientific centre for Shia Muslims.
Holy man who was sent to bring calm
THE death of a moderate and considerate cleric who was distanced from Saddam Hussein graphically illustrates the power vacuum which has followed the decline of the Baath Party regime.
Abdul Majid al-Khoei returned to Iraq last week from London, along with other exiles, charged with bringing calm to the people.
His father, Grand Ayatollah Abulqasim al-Khoei, was the spiritual leader of Shia Muslims.
After the 1991 uprising against Saddam, the ayatollah and his family, including Mr al-Khoei, were rounded up and taken to Baghdad.
Saddam, a member of the 40 per cent Sunni minority, humiliated his religious opponent, parading Ayatollah al-Khoei on state television.
Under pressure, Saddam returned the ayatollah, who advocated non-violence and promoted tolerance, to Najaf. He was placed under house arrest on 20 March, 1991 where he remained until his death just over a year later.
Other family members were imprisoned without trial, with many killed.
Mr al-Khoei, a father of four, escaped to London. A year after his father’s death, Saddam closed the Shias’ foundation in Iraq, deporting, arresting and harassing 1,000 of its theological students.
In north-west London, Mr al-Khoei continued its work, providing global support for hospital and schools, based in a former synagogue in Queen’s Park.
Days before his murder, Mr al-Khoei expressed his joy at being able to walk around Najaf "seeing old friends and shaking everyone’s hands".