Iraq Strife Cuts Close for Va. Cleric
Friday, March 16, 2007
As an outspoken Muslim American cleric, Mohamad al-Hanooti has often faced questions about his patriotism and religious views. His mosque in Falls Church was visited by FBI agents after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He was quizzed about his association with two Northern Virginia Muslims who were accused of financially supporting the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
But when Hanooti, 71, learned Wednesday that his younger brother Hamid had been killed in Iraq -- seized and executed by unknown militiamen near his neighborhood shop in Baghdad -- his first reaction was to express sorrow for all victims of the conflict in Iraq: Christians and Muslims, U.S. soldiers and Iraqi residents alike.
"People are being killed there every day. We are all losing our children, and each one gives me the same grief," Hanooti said in an interview at his home near Tysons Corner. "My brother was no different from the American kids who get sent to Iraq never expecting to be killed or to come home disabled."
According to witnesses and family members, Hamid Sheikh Ali Hanooti, 47, a lifelong Baghdad resident of Palestinian origin, was ambushed in his family's car Tuesday by armed men in civilian clothes. He was grabbed and dragged inside a black sedan. His son Hisham, 6, was left behind in the car, screaming in terror.
Family members said they spent the next 16 hours searching for Hanooti, even paying a bribe to an Iraqi security officer, who said he was being held as a terrorist suspect. But on Wednesday night, police reported finding his body in a vacant lot, shot twice in the back of the head.
Relatives said he ran a popular grocery and candy shop in Topchi, an urban district controlled by the Mahdi Army, a radical Shiite Muslim militia. Some relatives said they suspected the Mahdi Army in his slaying, but others said Hanooti had never had problems with the militia.
Hundreds of civilians are killed every month by bombings and shootings in the chaotic streets of Baghdad, where Shiite and Sunni militias vie for territory while Iraqi and American security forces try to maintain control. Some Palestinian Iraqis have been targeted by Shiite groups because of their former protected status under the Saddam Hussein regime.
The elder Hanooti, a Palestinian who immigrated to Iraq in 1948 and then to the United States in 1978, said he had no idea why anyone would want to kill his brother, a father of five.
"The only way to stop this violence is to bring more security to Iraq," Hanooti said. "If the foreign troops withdraw now, it will create more chaos in the short term, but eventually Iraqis will face reality and establish some leadership that brings stability. But if things stay as they are, there will be no opportunity for peace."
Hanooti is well-known in the Washington area, where he serves as the elected mufti, or elder guide in matters of Islamic law, for a large number of Muslim organizations. Before moving to Virginia, he was a leader at Islamic centers in the New York area.
His past associations in the Muslim community have brought him under government scrutiny. He is a former imam at the Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, a large mosque that opened in 1991 and grew under his leadership from 1995 to 1999. The mosque was visited by FBI agents several times after the government found that two of the Sept. 11 hijackers had briefly worshiped there.
Hanooti said he also had spoken up for Mousa Abu Marzook, an acquaintance and Palestinian-born businessman from Northern Virginia who was deported in 1997 and indicted several years later on charges of arranging financial support for Hamas, which the U.S. government views as a terrorist organization.
"I defended him as a scholar. I never supported or raised money for Hamas, and there is no record against me," Hanooti said.
He stressed that he held nothing against the U.S. government, and that he had always admired American society for its tolerance and openness. A longtime permanent resident, he is married to an American. He said two of his sons work for the U.S. military, in Kuwait and Germany.
"I love America," he said. "I always say to Muslims in my speeches that 70 percent of the laws in America are in compliance with Islam, and that they should Americanize everything in their life except things that are not in compliance with their faith."
Associates in the Washington area said Hanooti is known as an expert on religious practice and a moderate voice for Muslims in the United States. His work, in affiliation with the Muslim American Society, has been aimed at building bridges between Muslims and American society. Now, the death of his brother has created another bond with his adopted country.
Brulliard and special correspondent K.I. Ibrahim reported from Baghdad.