Al-Hakim’s Death Unsettles Iraqi Politics

The big news in Iraq was the death from cancer in Tehran of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the clerical leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.

He had been born in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf in 1950, into the household of Grand Ayatollah Muhsin al-Hakim, who served as the spiritual leader of Iraqi and most other non-Iranian Shiites in the 1960s. From 1968, when the secular Arab nationalist (and strongly Sunni-tinged) Baath Party made a coup and took over Iraq, it began persecuting Shiite activists. Many members of the al-Hakim clan were killed (over 60 by some counts), and others, including Abdul Aziz, were forced into exile in Iran.

In 1982, Ayatollah Khomeini formed the Iraqi expatriates into the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. In 1984, Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim became the leader of it, with a goal of overthrowing Saddam and making Iraq into an Islamic republic. The younger brother, Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim, was put in charge of the Badr Corps, a guerrilla group based in Tehran that used to attack Iraqi government officials and facilities when the Baath Party was in power. (It was trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, to which al-Hakim had a close relationship till his death).

He returned to Iraq in April of 2003, along with many Badr fighters. His older brother, Muhammad Baqir, was killed in a massive truck bombing in late August of 2003. Abdul Aziz became leader of the Supreme Council and Hadi al-Ameri took over the Badr Corps. Along with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and nuclear scientist Hussein Shahristani, he was an architect of the United Iraqi Alliance, a vast coalition of major and minor Shiite fundamentalist religious parties (along with some secular notables). The UIA went on to win the January 2005 parliamentary elections, and repeated that performance in December of that year. For some odd reason, conservative Republicans in the United States went wild with joy that Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and his Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq had become Iraq’s power broker. The Badr Corps, which he had headed, took over the special police commandos units of the Ministry of the Interior and gained a reputation for brutality against Sunni Arabs.

As Reidar Visser explains, Abdul Aziz maintained a close relationship with both Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and George W. Bush, showing the ways in which removing the Saddam Hussein regime and ensuring Shiite Arab dominance of Iraq were common goals of both Tehran and Washington. Al-Hakim repeatedly supported a long-term presence in Iraq of US troops, despite opposition to them on the part of most Iraqi and Iranian Shiites, because he feared that otherwise the Baathists would return. Sunni Arab guerrillas attempted to assassinate him on more than one occasion. He returned the favor, seeking to chase militant Sunnis out of the capital. He was frequently criticized by the Sunni Arab nationalist newspaper, al-Zaman, which he once threatened to muzzle. On the other hand, he did reach out to Sunnis, and Sunni parties expressed their condolences today.

Abdul Aziz al-Hakim pushed for a Shiite provincial confederacy on the model of the Kurdistan Regional Government in the Shiite south, but voters there rebuffed him in January of 2009, rejecting any such plan. The plan was also opposed by the Islamic Mission Party of al-Maliki and that Sadr Movement led by Muqtada al-Sadr.

After al-Hakim fell ill with cancer and began spending most of his time in Iran undergoing treatment, the UIA coalition fell apart. A rival of the Supreme Council, the Islamic Mission Party or Da’wa, grew in strength, benefiting from the vigorous leadership of Prime Minister Nuri al- Maliki (from spring 2006). Elements of the old Shiite coalition were put together again by other players this summer, with a new Iraqi National Alliance being announced just days ago. ISCI cleric and parliamentarian, Humam al-Hamudi, will chair the UIA coalition, succeeding al-Hakim. Al-Hamudi is known as a committed Shiite activist who played a major role in crafting Iraq’s constitution.

Al-Hayat reports in Arabic that the eldest son of Abdul Aziz, Ammar al-Hakim, will lead the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) for the time being. Eventually the Consultative Council of ISCI will formally choose a successor. (It will probably be Ammar, though ISCI leader Jalal al-Din al-Saghir maintains that the choice could fall on someone else).

Ash-Sharq al-Awsat (The Middle East) reports in Arabic that the future of the new Shiite coalition, the Iraqi National Alliance, is shaky now that its leader is dead. Other observers doubted that things would change much on the ground, since Abdul Aziz was already on extended medical leave and all the arrangements were undertaken by his office.

The death of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim emblazons a question mark over Iraqi politics going forward. Important parliamentary elections are scheduled for January, and al-Hakim is not there to lead his own coalition to the polls. His son Ammar is still inexperienced and relatively young. The foremost figure in ISCI outside the al-Hakim family is probably Iraqi vice president Adil Abdul Mahdi, who is widely viewed as a pragmatist rather than a party activist.

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