Libya revolt may solve mystery of cleric's fate

The Associated Press
Wednesday, March 2, 2011; 2:16 AM

BEIRUT -- The crumbling of Moammar Gadhafi's regime could shed light on one of the most enduring mysteries in Lebanon: the fate of Moussa al-Sadr, a popular Shiite cleric who vanished 33 years ago during a trip to Libya.

Since the uprising began, members of Libya's opposition have broken a three-decade silence on the issue, with some saying the 82-year-old cleric is languishing in a Libyan prison.

But another account came from a regime insider, Maj. Abdel-Moneim al-Houni, after he turned against the regime last week.

He says he believes al-Sadr was killed on Gadhafi's orders and buried in the remote town of Sabha, in southern Libya.

Al-Sadr's wide Shiite following in Lebanon is hoping the truth will finally emerge as Gadhafi's grip on power weakens.

"After Gadhafi's stonewalling and lying for 33 years, there is at last a hope that the imam and his companions are freed, and that the truth emerges," Chibli Mallat, the al-Sadr family lawyer, told The Associated Press.

The charismatic al-Sadr was one of the pioneers of Shiite empowerment. In 1975, he founded Amal, the first major militia and political force for Lebanon's Shiites, who historically were under the thumb of Christians and Sunnis. His disappearance had fueled a deep animosity between Libya and the Lebanese government and has been a burning issue for Lebanon's 1.5 million strong Shiite community.

An impressive figure - well over six feet (1.8 meters) tall - the Iranian-born cleric wore the black turban of a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad and was a skilled orator, with an accent reflecting his Iranian past. Regarded as a moderate, he urged cooperation with other faiths.

In 1978, al-Sadr and two companions - Sheik Mohammed Yacoub and journalist Abbas Badreddine - flew to Tripoli for a week of talks with Libyan officials. They were never seen or heard from again.

The day he was last seen, on Aug. 31, 1978, is still marked annually in Lebanon.

Libya insists al-Sadr and his aides left on a flight to Rome at the end of their visit and suggests the imam fell victim to an inter-Shiite power struggle.

Many Lebanese believe Gadhafi ordered the three Shiites killed after a feud over money stemming from the Libyan leader's funding of militias during Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war. Some - including in his family - cling to hope that he remains alive, in prison. Al-Sadr would be 82 years old now.

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