Lebanon's revered Shiite cleric, Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, dies at 75

BEIRUT (AP) — The leading Shiite cleric in Lebanon and one of the sect's most revered religious authorities, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, died Sunday after a long illness. He was 75.

Fadlallah's doctor, Hashem Noureddine, told The Associated Press that the cleric, who had been hospitalized for the past two weeks with a liver problem, died from internal bleeding in his stomach.

Seen by some as a spiritual mentor to the Hezbollah militant movement and by others as a voice of pragmatism and religious moderation, Fadlallah enjoyed a following that stretched beyond Lebanon's borders to Iraq, the Gulf and as far away as central Asia.

He played a key role in the rise to prominence of Lebanon's Shiite community over the past 30 years, and was one of the founders of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's governing Dawa Party. He was believed to be the party's religious guide until the last days of his life.

Known for his staunch anti-American views, he was described by Western media in the 1980s as a spiritual leader of the Lebanese militant Hezbollah — a claim both he and the group denied.

Fadlallah was born in Iraq in 1935 and lived in the country's Shiite holy city of Najaf, where he was considered one of the leading clerics, until the age of 30. He then moved to Lebanon — his family hailed from the southern Lebanese village of Ainata — where he began lecturing on religion.

In the ensuing decades, he would prod Lebanon's Shiites, who today make up a third of the country's population of four million, to fight for their rights.

During Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war, he was linked to Iranian-backed Shiite militants who kidnapped Americans and other Westerners, and bombed the U.S. Embassy and Marine base in Lebanon, killing more than 260 Americans.

Western intelligence sources at the time said Fadlallah blessed the drivers of the vehicles used in the attack on the Marine barracks and a simultaneous bombing of French troops in Beirut, although the cleric repeatedly denied the assertion.

But Fadlallah argued such acts were justifiable when the door to dialogue is locked shut. "When one fires a bullet at you, you cannot offer him roses," he said.

With age, Fadlallah's views mellowed, and he lost much of his 1980s militancy. His sermons, once fiery diatribes denouncing American imperialism, took on a pragmatic tone as he urged dialogue among nations.

The stocky, gray-bearded cleric with piercing brown eyes below his black turban, rejected being described in Western media as Hezbollah's mentor. He claimed his relationship with the group was the same as with any other Shiite faction, but was simply more obvious because of his physical presence in Lebanon.

"I reject it not because I reject Hezbollah, but because I refuse to be given a title that I don't possess," he said.

While Fadlallah's exact role with the militant group remains unclear, Hezbollah mourned his passing. The group's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, said Sunday Hezbollah had lost "a merciful father, a wise leader and ... a strong backer."

Fadlallah escaped several assassination attempts, including a March 1985 car bomb near his home in the Bir el-Abed district of south Beirut that killed 80 people.

The bomb, planted between his apartment block and a nearby mosque Fadlallah was attending that day, was timed to go off as he passed by. But Fadlallah stopped to listen to an old woman's complaints and escaped the 440-pound (200-kilogram) bomb's blast.

During the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, Israeli warplanes bombed his two-story house in Beirut's southern Haret Hreik neighborhood. Fadlallah was not at home at the time of the bombing, which reduced the house to rubble.

Despite his harsh criticism of U.S. policy, he condemned the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States as acts of terror.

Announcing Fadlallah's death at a Beirut news conference, Bahraini Shiite cleric Abdullah al-Ghuraifi, described him as a "father, religious authority and spiritual leader to all Islamic movements in the Arab and Islamic world."

Black banners were hung in a sign of mourning outside the hospital and at the Al-Hassanayn mosque in Beirut's suburb of Haret Hreik, where Fadlallah gave religion lessons and led Friday sermons. Thousands of the cleric's supporters, including women, wept openly. Fadlallah's Al-Bashaer radio station and Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV aired Quranic verses.

A grandfatherly figure, Fadlallah was also known for his bold fatwas, or religious edicts, including one that gave women the right to hit their husbands if they attacked them, and another that banned smoking.

He supported the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 but distanced himself from the key principle advocated by its leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, which placed the Iranian cleric as a supreme, undisputed spiritual leader for the world's Shiites.

Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri called Fadlallah "a voice of moderation and an advocate of unity" among Lebanese and Muslims in general.

In Iraq, Ali al-Adeeb, a prominent figure in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa Party, said Fadlallah "will be hard to replace," while Iraq's hard-line Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called for three days of mourning.

Fadlallah's title was "sayyed" — reflecting a claim of direct descent from the Prophet Muhammad's daughter Fatima and her husband Imam Ali, revered by Shiites as a saint.

In his youth, Fadlallah worked closely with Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, a co-founder of the Dawa Party that Saddam Hussein later crushed. In Lebanon, he founded the Al-Mabarrat network of charities, orphanages, schools, and religious institutions in Beirut, south Lebanon and the eastern Bekaa Valley, where many Shiites live.

Fadlallah is survived by his wife and 11 children. A funeral will be held Tuesday and Fadlallah will be buried at the Imamayn al-Hasanayn mosque south of Beirut, his office said.

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Associated Press Writers Sinan Salaheddin and Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report from Baghdad.