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Published Jul. 5, 2010

Associated Press

BEIRUT, Lebanon - The leading Shiite cleric in Lebanon and one of the sect's most revered religious authorities, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, died Sunday after a long illness. He was 75.

Fadlallah's doctor, Hashem Noureddine, told the Associated Press the cleric, who had been hospitalized for the past two weeks with a liver problem, died from bleeding in his stomach.

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

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 believed to be the party's religious guide.

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

In the ensuing decades, he would prod Lebanon's Shiites, who today make up a third of the country's population of 4 million, to fight for their rights.

During Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war, he was linked to Iranian-backed Shiite militants who kidnapped Americans and other Westerners, and bombed the U.S. Embassy and Marine base in Lebanon, killing more than 260 Americans.

With age, 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.

The stocky, gray-bearded cleric with piercing brown eyes below his black turban, rejected being described in Western media as Hezbollah's mentor. He claimed his relationship with the group was the same as with any other Shiite faction, but was simply 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.

While Fadlallah's exact role with the militant group remains unclear, Hezbollah mourned his passing.