Friday, August 28, 2009

TEHRAN | Thousands of Iranians prayed and wept Thursday during a memorial for Iraqi Shi’ite Muslim leader Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the start of a two-day tour of mourning that will take his body through his country’s Shi’ite heartland, apparently in hopes of rallying large crowds of supporters.

Usually Islamic tradition requires the dead be buried swiftly, preferably within hours of their death. But in the case of Mr. al-Hakim - one of Iraq’s most influential power brokers, who died Wednesday of lung cancer - there may be political considerations.

Iraq is holding parliamentary elections in January, where there is expected to be stiff competition over the Shi’ite vote because of a split among Shi’ite parties. In regional elections this year, Mr. al-Hakim’s party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, did poorly in many parts of the south. So a show of masses of supporters turning out to mourn Mr. al-Hakim could boost the party.

After Thursday’s ceremony in Tehran, Mr. al-Hakim’s body was driven to the Shi’ite shrine city of Qom, south of the Iranian capital, for another memorial. From there he was expected to be flown to Baghdad to be taken to the holy city of Najaf, perhaps with a stop in at least one other Shi’ite city.

The memorials in Iran reflected Mr. al-Hakim’s deep ties to the country, where he spent 20 years in exile leading a guerrilla force fighting Saddam Hussein’s rule. After Saddam’s fall in 2003, he returned to his homeland to become leader of Iraq’s biggest Shi’ite party and a symbol of the resurgence of Iraq’s Shi’ite majority.

Thousands of Iranians and Iraqi expatriates marched in a procession carrying Mr. al-Hakim’s coffin from the Iraqi Embassy in Tehran to a nearby mosque. Mourners held up photos of Mr. al-Hakim as well as of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

“This is a big loss for Iraqi nation and government and a painful one for Iran,” Ayatollah Khamenei said in a statement of condolences. “His services to his country in forming a national government before and after Saddam’s fall are unique and unforgettable.”

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called Mr. al-Hakim “a great scholar” who “spent the blessings-filled years of his life … in the path of exalting Islam and fighting ignorance, dictatorship and brutality.”

In Iraq, hundreds gathered near Mr. al-Hakim’s office and his family home in Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad. Condolences were painted on black banners that hung from the main streets in Najaf, as hundreds more Shi’ites began arriving in the city in anticipation of Mr. al-Hakim’s funeral.

Iraqi Shi’ite Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi and Iranian state TV said Mr. al-Hakim’s body would be flown to Iraq on Friday morning for burial in Najaf. There were reports his coffin could pass through the holy city of Karbala, near Najaf, and possibly Basra, the biggest city in Iraq’s Shi’ite heartland.

The top two U.S. officials in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno and Ambassador Christopher Hill, praised Mr. al-Hakim for “contributing to the building of a new Iraq” - a sign of how the cleric cannily balanced his ties between the United States and Iran, bitter rivals in the Mideast.

Iraq’s most revered Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said Mr. al-Hakim’s life was “full of contributions, including serving his religion and homeland and ridding his people of suppression and totalitarianism.”

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