A week ago I interviewed a key Iraqi opposition leader by satellite phone as he was secretly returning from exile to his hometown of Najaf.

I wrote that I would follow the progress of Abdul Majid al-Khoei, a prominent Shiite cleric with a mission crucial to American hopes of building democracy in postwar Iraq.

Thursday, al-Khoei was hacked to death near the holy shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf.

The cleric’s murder is a body blow to U.S. plans for winning over Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority. It also is a stark warning of what U.S. officials are wading into as they plan to remake the political infrastructure of Iraq.

Al-Khoei was the son of the supreme Shiite cleric in the world at the time of the Gulf War, the late Grand Ayatollah Abul-Qasim al-Khoei. The family suffered terribly under Saddam, and many members were murdered after the failed Shiite uprising of 1991. The first Bush administration failed to help the uprising, in which Saddam’s forces shattered the Shiite shrines.

I met Abdul Majid in 1991, after he had escaped Iraq and started the Al-Khoei charitable foundation in London. I had visited Najaf secretly after the uprising and collected broken Persian tiles from around the shrine of Imam Ali. I gave the tiles to al-Khoei, and I was touched that he kept them in his office opposite his desk.

What made al-Khoei of special interest to the White House was his theological outlook. Like his father, he believed in separation of mosque and state. In January, in his London office, Abdul Majid told me, “Religion and politics should be separate.”

He wanted to repair the breach between the United States and Shia Islam that opened after Persian Shiites under Ayatollah Khomeini took over Iran (his father had opposed Khomeini’s theory of clerical rule). He hoped that Iraqi Shiites, who are Arabs, could show how Islam can coexist with a democratic, constitutional state.

His chance, he thought, would come with Saddam’s fall.

He returned to Najaf just recently with U.S. help. He was openly working with U.S forces to ensure respect for the holy places and reestablish order. U.S. officials saw him as the key link to local Shiite religious leaders, especially the senior Iraqi cleric in Najaf, Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who had succeeded his father.

When I last spoke with al-Khoei he was upbeat. He said Shiites still mistrusted Americans because of their 1991 betrayal. But he had changed his opinion. He was helping the Americans meet local leaders so “Najafis can take responsibility to run the city again.” He wanted to avoid any orgy of revenge-seeking.

But already there were signs of trouble. Ayatollah Sistani declined to meet him (He met the ayatollah’s son). As the struggle for postwar power heated up, some locals held al-Khoei’s American connections against him. “People insulted him on the streets,” I was told by Hussein Sharistani, a Shiite opposition leader with close connections in southern Iraq. “They said, ‘How dare you come in with American tanks?”‘

Experts on Iraqi Shiism worried that some U.S. officials were trying to promote a schism between Iraqi and Iranian Shiism, and might misuse al-Khoei in this effort. “The United States shouldn’t meddle in Shia religious affairs,” said author and academic Yitzhak Nakash. “This will only backfire.”

Al-Khoei persevered. On Thursday, he apparently planned to broker the peaceful departure from the Imam Ali shrine of a cleric loyal to Saddam. The U.S. military flew journalists to Najaf to witness this model of reconciliation.

Before the journalists reached the shrine, a melee broke out. An angry crowd murdered both al-Khoei and the man he was trying to save. The reasons for the killing are still unclear.

Some sources say the killing shows an internal power struggle has begun among followers of different Iraqi Shiite clerics. (The killers are allegedly radical devotees of the school of Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al Sadr, who was murdered by Saddam in 1999). Some say the killers acted because al-Khoei was pro-American; some say they were secret agents for Saddam.

Whatever the reason, a man who believed that Islam and democracy could mix has been murdered. A cleric who returned to preach tolerance – not to rule Iraq – is gone. There is a message here for U.S. officials who think they can impose an Iraqi exile leader – say, Ahmad Chalabi – on this complex and fractured society.

This tragedy should shatter any illusions that it will be easy to remake Iraq.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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