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Al-Sadr had hand in slaying, judge says

BAGHDAD -- Moqtada al-Sadr, the fiery Shi'ite cleric whose militia has been at the center of this week's violence in Iraq, complains that the Americans have broken their promises of democracy by ordering his newspaper closed -- the action nearly two weeks ago that sparked protests, then armed assaults.

Coalition officials say Sadr is suspected of worse. This week they arranged a news briefing with the investigating Iraqi judge who has built a murder case against the cleric in the April 10, 2003, death of Abdel-Majid al Khoei. US officials had brought Khoei back to Iraq when Baghdad fell last year in hopes that he would be the leading moderate voice among Shi'ites.

The judge, whose name wasn't given because officials feared he'd be assassinated, said that he built the murder case against Sadr on facts and that he was under no political pressure to reach his findings. He said he interviewed "many, many" witnesses and that autopsy evidence collaborated their statements.

According to the judge, Khoei was meeting with other Shi'ites at the Grand Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf when Sadr's supporters attacked him, shooting him in the hand. They then dragged him through the entrance, stabbing and beating him.

At one point, the judge said, Khoei ran to Sadr's office in the shrine compound, but the younger cleric refused to let him inside and locked the door. So Khoei took sanctuary with a nearby merchant, where he fell unconscious from his wounds.

Upon learning Khoei was still alive, the judge said, Sadr sent his followers to the shop with these orders: "Take him from here and kill him in your own special way."

A mob then supposedly descended on Khoei and dragged him unconscious by the feet down some concrete stairs, his head banging on the steps. They stopped 50 yards from the shrine and a Sadr follower finished him off with an AK-47 shot to the head.

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