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Lebanese Shiite cleric Fadlallah dies at 75

By Bassem Mroue and Zeina Karam
Monday, July 5, 2010; B04

Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, the leading Shiite cleric in Lebanon and one of the sect's most revered religious authorities, died July 4 at age 75. His doctor 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.

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.

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

Known for his staunch anti-American views, 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 thought to have been the party's religious guide until the last days of his life.

Sayyed 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 was from the southern Lebanese village of Ainata -- where he began lecturing on religion.

During Lebanon's civil war in the 1970s and '80s, he was linked to Shiite militants who kidnapped Americans and other Westerners and who bombed the U.S. Embassy and Marine base in Lebanon, killing more than 260 Americans.

Western intelligence sources at the time said Sayyed Fadlallah blessed the drivers of the vehicles used in the attack on the Marine barracks.

The cleric repeatedly denied the assertion but said 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, Sayyed 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.

Despite his criticism of U.S. policy, he condemned the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as acts of terrorism.

The cleric rejected being described in Western media as Hezbollah's mentor. He said his relationship with the group was the same as with any other Shiite faction but was 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.

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

A grandfatherly figure, Sayyed Fadlallah was 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. In Lebanon, he founded a network of charities, orphanages, schools and religious institutions.

He 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 he was attending that day, was timed to go off as he passed by. But Sayyed Fadlallah stopped to listen to a woman's complaints and escaped the 440-pound bomb's blast.

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

In Iraq, hard-line Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called for three days of mourning.

Survivors include Sayyed Fadlallah's wife and 11 children.

-- Associated Press

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