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Shiite Muslim cleric mourned in Lebanon

Tens of thousands turn out in Beirut to mark the death of Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, a former spiritual mentor to Hezbollah who later clashed with the militant group.

July 06, 2010|By Meris Lutz, Special to The Times

Reporting from Beirut — Tens of thousands of mourners gathered in Beirut's southern suburbs to honor a leading Shiite Muslim cleric whose death could trigger a battle over his legacy and the ideological direction of Lebanon's largest community.

Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, once a spiritual mentor to the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, was estimated to have a worldwide following in the millions. Despite the midday heat, the streets were packed with supporters who prayed and chanted in unison, some holding pictures of their deceased marja, or source of emulation.

"There is no God but God, and [Fadlallah] is beloved by God!" they shouted, right hands raised to the sky and eyes wet with tears.

"This is a great loss for the entire Islamic nation," said 27-year-old Ikbal, who declined to give her full name. "He may have died, but his thoughts and his wisdom will live on."

Despite years of tensions between Hezbollah and Fadlallah over questions of religious doctrine and social policy, the powerful group quickly laid claim to his legacy and the loyalty of his mostly middle-class followers.

In something of a surprise, Hezbollah urged its supporters to join the procession, guaranteeing a massive crowd. Hezbollah security forces equipped with walkie-talkies managed the throngs of mourners, segregating men and women along roadways lined with apartment towers.

Contrasts between Fadlallah's moderate supporters and Hezbollah's sterner message could be seen on the streets. The white stone mosque where the cleric preached was draped in banners printed with quotes emphasizing his approach to social issues. "A kind word is an open face to the world," read one.

Meanwhile, loudspeakers presumably controlled by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah broadcast Fadlallah speeches praising armed opposition to Israel.

"Hezbollah is attempting to co-opt Fadlallah's image," said Augustus Richard Norton, author of the book "Hezbollah: A Short History" and a professor at Boston University. "The question now is where do [his followers] go for their religious guidance. Hezbollah's trying to fill this void."

Norton, a former United Nations peacekeeper in Lebanon, had met with Fadlallah. "I was always taken with his openness to dialogue," he said. "He was hardly a dogmatist."

Since his death Sunday, Fadlallah has been described by Hezbollah leaders as an important figure to the group, even though he often espoused views at odds with those of Hezbollah. The group's official spiritual leader is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader.

Khamenei issued a statement Monday praising Fadlallah as a "sincere and loyal supporter of the Islamic revolution in Iran" who "proved his loyalty to the Islamic Republic system in words and action" — although Fadlallah bluntly opposed the philosophy behind Iran's cleric-led political model.

Despite internal debates over religious interpretation, Fadlallah's support for armed opposition to Israel was unwavering, and he appeared to close ranks with Hezbollah after the 2006 war between Israel and the militant group.

The outpouring of grief for Fadlallah wasn't ubiquitous in the Shiite community. In the Iraqi shrine city of Najaf, where the cleric was born, the streets were devoid of banners and mourners.

Fadlallah's death leaves a gap in religious leadership that could be filled by his brother Mohammad Ali or his son Ali, although neither is as popular as he was.

Other media reports have floated the name of Bahraini cleric Abdullah Ghuraifi, a member of Fadlallah's inner circle, as a possible successor.

Lutz is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi in Beirut and special correspondent Saad Fakhrildeen in Najaf contributed to this report.

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