Leader of Iraq’s top Shia party dies of cancer

by Ernesto LondoŮo in Baghdad

Published: August 26 2009 19:45 | Last updated: August 26 2009 19:54

Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the head of Iraq’s largest Shia Muslim political party, died on Wednesday, setting the stage for a showdown for the leadership of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq that could weaken it ahead of the upcoming parliamentary election.

Hakim, 59, died in Tehran, where he was being treated for lung cancer, his relatives and associates said.

Supreme Council leaders will announce on Thursday after Hakim’s burial in Najaf that that his son Ammar will become the new head of the party, Supreme Council officials said.

However, Ammar will not be the head of the newly announced new Shia Muslim alliance, officials said. Ammar is widely seen as too young and inexperienced to command all the party’s factions. Supreme Council elder Humam Hamoudi is poised to lead the new Shia Muslim alliance, which excludes Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Iraqi officials across the political spectrum on Wednesday expressed their sorrow over the passing of Hakim, who in recent years masterfully managed to keep in good graces with Washington and Tehran.

Abdul Aziz al-Hakim

Abdul Aziz al-Hakim

An influential cleric and power broker, Hakim rose the ranks of the ISCI while living in Iran in the 1980s and 1990s,. He there led its military wing, fighting on Iran’s side in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. Despite origins in Iran, the ISCI and Hakim have had good ties with the US. Mr Hakim went to Washington to meet US leaders and was a member of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council after the invasion of 2003.

He was one of the architects of the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shia Muslim coalition that won the most seats during the December 2005 parliamentary election. He was widely credited for the rise of Shia Muslims to power after decades of oppression by Saddam Hussein, who was Sunni.

¬ďThe man was the vital artery of the United Iraqi Alliance and the Iraqi government,¬Ē said Muayed al-Hakim, a member of the extended family. ¬ďWith his death the arena is empty of a suitable figure to fill the vacuum. He had remarkable negotiating skills and a powerful imposing personality.¬Ē

Khalid al-Nimany, a member of the Provincial Council in Najaf, the nucleus of Shia Muslim politics, said Hakim’s death marked a major setback for his party.

¬ďHis death came at a crucial moment as we are slowly approaching the date for general elections and there are a lot of political stirrings, alliances being drawn, and coalitions being built,¬Ē Mr Nimany said.

Kenneth Katzman, an Iraq expert at the Congressional Research Center, congress’ think tank, said Hakim’s death leaves the party rudderless at a crucial time.

¬ďHakim¬ís passing is likely to set off a major power struggle in ISCI that could lead to its fracture,¬Ē he said. ¬ďAmmar is viewed by the older ISCI figures as inheriting the position rather than earning it.¬Ē

Mr Maliki¬ís office issued a statement calling Hakim a ¬ďbig brother and a strong supporter during the struggle against the former regime.¬Ē

Hakim’s passing is likely to shape Mr Maliki’s thinking as the prime minister decides whether to join the new Shia Muslim alliance or form a new coalition with Sunnis and possibly Kurds.

Leaders of the new coalition, which includes most of the parties that selected Mr Maliki as Prime Minister in 2006, declined to guarantee that he would keep his job if he agreed to join the alliance. The new coalition was announced on Sunday.

Albeit widely expected, Hakim’s passing deprives the coalition of a revered theologian known for his shrewd political and consensus-building skills.

¬ďThe key question remains whether Nouri al-Maliki will join the new alliance or not,¬Ē said Reidar Visser, an Iraq expert at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs

Hakim’s family emerged as one of the top threats to Saddam Hussein’s regime during the 1970s. He was imprisoned after the 1977 Shia Muslim uprising in Iraq and fled to Iran three years later. He was among the founders of the Supreme Council in 1982. The group was originally called the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, but changed its name after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq to shake off the perception that it was a tentacle of Tehran.

Hakim led the party’s militia, the Badr Organization, which decades later became one of the building blocks of Iraq’s new army and police forces. He was the leading figure of the Supreme Council when the alliance it presided over won the 2005 parliamentary election. He did not assume a government position because alliance members decided not to appoint religious figures to government jobs.

The Supreme Council did poorly in January’s provincial elections and appears to have all but abandoned a project to create a semi-autonomous region in southern Iraq.

Hakim has battled lung cancer for years. He was treated in Houston in May 2007 and later underwent chemotherapy in Tehran.