- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 27, 2009

BAGHDAD | Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the scion of a revered clerical family who channeled rising Shi’ite Muslim power after the fall of Saddam Hussein to become one of Iraq’s most influential politicians, died Wednesday in Iran, the country that was long his key ally. He was 59.

The calm, soft-spoken Mr. al-Hakim, who died of lung cancer, was a kingmaker in Iraq’s politics, working behind the scenes as the head of the country’s biggest Shi’ite political party.

But for many in Iraq’s Shi’ite majority, he was more than that - a symbol of their community’s victory and seizure of power after decades of oppression under Saddam’s Sunni-led regime. Mr. al-Hakim’s family led a Shi’ite rebel group against Saddam’s rule from their exile in Iran, where he lived for 20 years building close ties with Iranian leaders.

After Saddam’s 2003 fall, Mr. al-Hakim hewed close to the Americans even while maintaining his alliance with Tehran, judging that the U.S. military was key to the Shi’ite rise.

Political leaders from all sects offered condolences and raised concerns that his death leaves a vacancy at the helm of Iraq’s biggest Shi’ite party with just five months to go before parliamentary elections.

“Al-Hakim was a big brother and a strong supporter during the struggle against the former regime, and he was a major player in the process of building the new Iraq,” Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said. “His death at this sensitive stage that we are undergoing represents a big loss to Iraq.”

Among Iraq’s minority Sunnis, he was deeply distrusted, seen as a tool of Shi’ite Iran. But the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party expressed sorrow at the loss amid fears that those who replace him could take a harder line. “Al-Hakim’s absence will create a big political vacuum at this delicate stage of Iraq’s history,” the party said.

His death also comes at a time of political upheaval among Iraq’s majority Shi’ites. The alliance of Shi’ite parties that Mr. al-Hakim helped forge and that has dominated the government since the first post-Saddam elections in 2005 has broken apart ahead of January parliamentary elections, pitting a coalition led by Mr. al-Hakim’s party against another led by Mr. al-Maliki.

As Mr. al-Hakim largely withdrew from the public arena due to his illness, his son and political heir, Ammar, has taken the lead in his party, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council.

Ammar’s relative lack of experience has raised some questions over whether he will be able to hold the organization together at a sensitive time in Iraqi politics, but party leaders have insisted they would remain united behind the al-Hakim family.

Mehrzad Boroujerdi, a researcher of Mideast political affairs at Syracuse University, predicted that a “number of contenders” will emerge seeking to exert power over Shi’ite affairs and challenge Mr. al-Hakim’s son. One possible beneficiary is Muqtada al-Sadr, who could gain some renewed credibility as an established political leader despite his virulent anti-American views.

Mr. al-Hakim was diagnosed with lung cancer in May 2007 after tests at the prestigious University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. He chose to receive his chemotherapy treatment in Iran.

Mr. al-Hakim was born in 1950 in Najaf to one of Shi’ite Islam’s most prestigious clerical families. His father was Grand Ayatollah Muhsin al-Hakim, among the most influential Shi’ite scholars of his generation.

After the 1970 death of his father, Mr. al-Hakim and his brothers became active in political opposition to Saddam’s Ba’ath Party.

He was jailed several times until he and most of the family fled to neighboring Iran in 1980 after a crackdown by Saddam on the Shi’ite opposition. In Iran, his older brother, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, founded the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the forerunner of the SIIC. Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim headed the group’s military wing, the Badr Brigade, which fought alongside Iranian forces during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War.

The al-Hakim brothers returned to Iraq soon after the collapse of Saddam’s government. On Aug. 29, 2003, a massive vehicle bomb exploded outside the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, killing Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim and more than 80 others, and Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim stepped into the leadership of the Supreme Council.

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