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The Case of the Missing Cleric

Lee Smith

Press TV, Iran’s state-owned English-language news network, is reporting that amid all the turmoil now unfolding in Libya the famous Lebanese cleric and founder of the Amal movement, Moussa Sadr, may be alive.

Sadr, the Iranian-born scion of one of Shia Islam’s most famous families (he’s the subject of Fouad Ajami’s classic The Vanished Imam: Musa Al Sadr and the Shia of Lebanon, one of his cousins is Moqtada Sadr, leader of Iraq’s Mahdi army), went missing in Libya in 1978 under mysterious circumstances. The working assumption, however, is that Qaddafi had him killed.

For instance, former NSC staffer in the George W. Bush White House Peter Theroux concludes in his mesmerizing 1987 book, The Strange Disappearance of Imam Moussa Sadr, that Sadr was probably killed due to Libyan intelligence officials misunderstanding one of Qaddafi’s orders. However, the Libyan regime has repeatedly denied any responsibility for Sadr’s disappearance and says he left the country for Italy.

But now Lebanese political analyst Roula Talj explains that Qaddafi’s son Saif told her that Sadr never left Libya. Even though Saif, says Talj, “did not admit that Imam Moussa al-Sadr was alive,” she says that, “from my own analysis and people’s reaction to this, I believe he is still alive.”

However, others in a position to know dispute Talj’s interpretation of the facts. Abdel Meneem al-Houni, who resigned last week from his post as Libya’s ambassador to the Arab League, says that Sadr is dead, having been shot and killed, as suspected, in Libya in 1978.

But it’s hardly surprising that Talj would try to get out front on this issue. As close as she is to pro-Syrian Lebanese figures like Michel Samaha and Jamil al-Sayyid — a former security official once detained for his suspected involvement in the murder of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri — she perhaps fears how events in North Africa might reverberate in the Eastern Mediterranean. If Qaddafi falls and his regime’s intelligence archives are opened, it could well cause trouble for Syria.

Many in Lebanon believe that Sadr’s disappearance, or death, was orchestrated by Syrian intelligence officers who farmed the work out to the Libyans when during the early years of the Lebanese civil wars the regime in Damascus wanted to get rid of a rival power center.

The last thing Syria wants now is to be fingered in the death of a Shia legend. With sealed indictments in the Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s investigation into the Hariri assassination due to be opened shortly, Hezbollah members as well as Syrian officials are expected to be named. Damascus as well as their Shia allies in Hezbollah have anticipated that their alleged involvement in the murder of Hariri may instigate Lebanon’s Sunni community—but they could have hardly foreseen that the memory of a 32-year-old murder file might split Lebanon’s Shia community, tilting some against Syria and Hezbollah.

One should also keep in mind that the sponsors of Press TV, a media outfit not distinguished by its accuracy in reporting, also have a stake in redirecting the story of Sadr’s death. It was a faction in the revolutionary Khomeini government that would eventually come to target members of Sadr’s circle in the wake of their leader’s disappearance. The revelation that the clerical regime was targeting influential Lebanese clerics even back then may not sit well with some of Tehran’s Lebanese clients.

In any case, the story of Sadr’s disappearance in Qaddafi’s Libya reminds us of the awful efficiency of the Colonel’s terror apparatus. Indeed, between the 1986 La Belle disco bombing in West Berlin that killed two U.S. servicemen and the 1988 Lockerbie bombing that murdered 190 Americans, Qaddafi is responsible for the deaths of more U.S. citizens than any other terrorist organization save Al Qaeda and Hezbollah. And still President Obama is silent.

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