CAIRO, Egypt – Abdel Majid al-Khoei, a Shiite Muslim cleric whose father was the Shiite world's supreme ayatollah, returned home to Iraq last week from years of exile in London preaching reconciliation as the country tries to rebuild.
A staunch opponent of Saddam Hussein, he was reaching out to a mullah reviled for his connections to Saddam's regime when a crowd killed them both Thursday in the holy city of Najaf, witnesses said.
He was in his early 40s.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who had met with al-Khoei several times both at Downing Street and at al-Khoei's London-based foundation, said he was appalled at al-Khoei's death and sent condolences to his family.
"He was a religious leader who embodied hope and reconciliation and who was committed to building a better future for the people of Iraq," Blair said in a statement.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw added that he was "sure his vision for (Iraqi Shiites) will be realized."
Al-Khoei's family is of Iranian origin but lived in Iraq's mainly Shiite south for many years.
Al-Khoei's father was Abul-Qassim al-Khoei, the Supreme Ayatollah or spiritual leader for the world's Shiites, who died in August 1992 while under house arrest imposed by Saddam's regime.
A year before his death, the elder al-Khoei was forced to meet Saddam and show loyalty following the regime's crushing of the Shiite uprising that followed the 1991 Gulf War. The meeting was aired on Iraqi television as a gesture to humiliate the Shiites.
When the ayatollah died, Abdel Majid al-Khoei defected to London and founded a charity whose causes included Iraqi refugees in Iran, which is also mostly Shiite. It was funded with contributions from followers in Iraq, Iran and elsewhere.
Al-Khoei began to indulge in politics in recent years with Iraqi opposition groups, annoying some exiles who felt he should stick to charitable work.
He took part in the U.S.-backed, meeting of Iraqi opposition groups in London last December that drew up plans for a post-Saddam era.
Shortly after U.S. troops took control of Najaf last week, he returned to try help calm the city and restore order. Some of his opponents accused him of wanting to get a jump on other Shiite leaders in building popularity.
Al-Khoei, while a respected figure, did not hold a high position in the Shiite clerical hierarchy, where scholarly eminence can translate into politial influence. What support he did have in Iraq came mainly from his links to his father.
Al-Khoei was working to establish a new political organization to be called the Supreme Iraqi Shiite Council that would support moderate religious ideology and reconciliation among all religious sects.
He told The Associated Press by telephone Monday that he and a group of exiled Iraqis had helped persuade locals in Najaf to cooperate with U.S. troops.
Other Shiite clerics have ruled against such cooperation, including the largest group, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq led by Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, who also decided to return to Iraq from his exile in Iran.
Others competing with al-Khoei in Najaf were the radical followers of the late Shiite leader Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, who was killed by Saddam two years ago.
For the world's nearly 120 million Shiites, Najaf is the third holiest city, behind Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, and a center for learning.
Al-Khoei was married and had several small children. Details were not available.