- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 2, 2002

TEHRAN Ayatollah Sayed Mohammed Baqir al Hakim, an Iraqi opposition leader with 8,000 armed fighters, has plenty of reasons to overthrow Saddam Hussein, but he refuses join the United States in doing so.

"We get no support from America. Neither in the past, nor nowadays," the white-robed, black-turbaned 63-year-old cleric said in an interview at his Tehran compound.

"If the U.S. offered help, we'd refuse it," he said as a half-dozen armed bodyguards looked on.

As the spiritual and political leader of the Iran-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, or SCIRI, Ayatollah Hakim has been battling the Iraqi regime since at least 1972, when the Baghdad government jailed and tortured him.

He was released, but Saddam jailed him again five years later, and over the years Saddam's government has killed five of Ayatollah Hakim's brothers, seven of his nephews and nearly 35 other relatives.

Speaking in Arabic and Farsi, Ayatollah Hakim said his group would continue its fight against the Baghdad government.

"We're working against Saddam now," he said. "We've always been fighting against the Iraqi regime. We were doing it before America. America's just arriving."

Indeed, said Ayatollah Hakim, America stood by and did nothing while Saddam Hussein's forces crushed a Shi'ite uprising in southern Iraq following the 1991 Gulf war.

"The Americans have only worked against us in the past," he said.

In 1998, President Clinton, recognizing the potential of the Iraqi opposition groups, offered to help SCIRI, which has been financed, armed and supported by Tehran since its founding. The Ayatollah Hakim turned Washington down.

The failure to recruit Ayatollah Hakim into an anti-Saddam coalition shows how poor relations between the United States and Iran have complicated the effort to replace the Iraqi government.

"Ayatollah Hakim is a very serious and influential actor in Iraqi politics," said Nader Hashemi, a Middle East specialist at the University of Toronto. "If the Bush administration chooses to ignore him in their deliberations on a post-Saddam Iraq because of his ties to Iran, they will do so at their own peril."

The U.S. and Iranian governments have barely spoken since the 1979 seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran, and President Bush's inclusion of Iran in the "axis of evil" makes it even less likely the two will cooperate in ousting Saddam.

Iran also accuses the United States of aiding Iraq during the bloody and costly eight-year Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, in which Ayatollah Hakim played a role.

Then, Saddam and his Sunni Muslim government feared that Iraq's majority Shi'ite population would take up the Islamic revolution of Iranians, who are 90 percent Shi'ite.

Middle East analysts say Ayatollah Hakim would be a valuable asset in any push to remove the Iraqi strongman.

"SCIRI taps into Iraq's majority Shi'ite population in a way that other Iraqi opposition groups do not," said Colin Rowat, a Middle East lecturer at the University of Birmingham in England.

In addition to his forces in southern Iraq, Ayatollah Hakim says he has had operatives acting in concert with Kurds in northern Iraq since the end of the 1991 war. A half-million Iraqi refugees reside just inside the Iranian border, where Ayatollah Hakim's group operates schools and clinics.

"We have military, logistical, social and press cooperation with the other groups of the Iraqi opposition," he said. "We have military operations inside Iraq. From time to time, we attack important institutions of the Iraqi regime."

The Iraqi opposition groups have been getting their houses in order in anticipation of creating a new government for Iraq. In northern Iraq, the two main Kurdish opposition groups and the Turkmen forces have stopped squabbling and made peace.

When internal and external Iraqi opposition groups met in Washington in August, Ayatollah Hakim sent his brother.

Ayatollah Hakim himself met with Iraqi Kurdish opposition leaders in Tehran in mid-September, said Bahram Veletbegi, a Kurdish journalist who heads the Kurdish Institute here.

"The Shi'ite groups have tight relations with the Kurds," he said. "We've had relations with these opposition groups for 30, 40 years."

But Ayatollah Hakim also remains a guest of Iran as well as a top-ranking figure in the Shi'ite clerical hierarchy that rules Iran. A portrait of Ayatollah Hakim with Iran's revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and current ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, hangs in the waiting room of his group's headquarters. Ayatollah Hakim has called himself a follower of Ayatollah Khomeini.

But in contrast to Iran's clerical rulers, who have fought efforts to reform Iran's theocratic government, Ayatollah Hakim espouses democracy and secular government. He says he seeks a nonsectarian, democratic Iraq that gives voice to the nation's disparate religious and ethnic groups.

"We want a democratic republic that takes all the people into account," he said. "The rule of law should be obeyed. It should be an independent country. And the Iraqi people must be given a real role in running the government."

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