- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 20, 2007

BAGHDAD - Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of Iraq’s largest Shi’ite party and a key figure in the country’s political reform process, is traveling to Iran to seek medical treatment for lung cancer, officials said yesterday.

The development was expected to create disarray in the Supreme Islamic Council in Iraq, the powerful political organization the United States has counted on to help push through a package of reforms.

Hours earlier, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani flew to the United States for a medical checkup and three-week vacation, sidelining another top politician as the Bush administration pushes Iraq’s parliament to move on a revenue-sharing oil law, constitutional amendments and expanded political opportunities for Sunnis.

Mr. Talabani, a Kurd and a close ally of Mr. al-Hakim, was hospitalized briefly in Jordan in February after collapsing because of exhaustion and dehydration caused by lung and sinus infections.

Also yesterday, the U.S. military announced that bombings killed seven U.S. troops in Baghdad and a southern city, and the country’s Sunni vice president spoke out against the proposed oil law, clouding its prospects for passage.

Mr. al-Hakim flew to the United States on Wednesday for tests after doctors at a hospital in Baghdad detected signs of cancer in one of his lungs. The diagnosis was confirmed at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, officials in the al-Hakim organization said.

Mr. al-Hakim left the U.S. early yesterday for Iran, where he will undergo chemotherapy treatment, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

He chose treatment in Iran rather than the U.S. because he wanted to be close to his family and proper treatment was not available in Iraq, party officials said. His choice of Iran also reflected his close links to the Shi’ite theocracy there.

Mr. al-Hakim’s absence could last several months or longer, said the officials, robbing Iraq of a key player at a time when the United States is pressing for parliamentary action on a series of political “benchmarks” in support of its military surge in Baghdad.

The country’s Sunni vice president told reporters in Jordan yesterday that one of those benchmarks a draft law governing the distribution of Iraq’s oil revenues gives too many concessions to foreign oil companies.

“We disagree with the production-sharing agreement,” Tariq al-Hashemi said on the sidelines of an international conference hosted by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum. “We want foreign oil companies, and we have to lure them into Iraq to learn from their expertise and acquire their technology, but we shouldn’t give them big privileges.”

The bill also faces opposition from the Kurds, who have demanded greater control of oil fields in Kurdish areas. Kurdish parties control 58 of the 275 parliament seats.

Mr. al-Hashemi is among three leaders of a Sunni bloc that controls 44 seats. Together, the Kurds and the Sunnis have enough legislative muscle to delay passage of the measure, which is likely to draw opposition from some Shi’ite lawmakers, too.

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