- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 10, 2009

BAGHDAD | American hopes that Iraq will become a democratic secular state with tolerance for religious differences have received a boost with the emergence of 38-year-old Ammar Hakim at the head of one of the largest Shia movements.

Equally important, the man who will lead the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) into parliamentary elections in three months says he is determined that Iraq should not fall under undue influence from its Shi’ite brethren in neighboring Iran.

“It is not logical Iraq would throw itself in the laps of anyone,” said Mr. Hakim, who took charge of the dominating political faction after the death of his father in September. “We are not agents of anyone.”

In one of his first interviews with an American newspaper, Mr. Hakim spoke of the delicate balance between civilian rule and respect for religious authority laid out in Iraq’s constitution.

“Iraq is run as a civilian country but respects the Islamic identity of the country,” he said, drawing a contrast with the formalized rule of religious leaders in Iran. He also said that the Shi’ite majority coalition in parliament was “proud of Iraq’s Arab heritage” and could be a bridge between predominantly Sunni Muslim Arab states and Shi’ite Iran.

Mr. Hakim’s remarks have implications for the entire region because Iran has a history of using allied forces, including Hezbollah and Hamas, to influence events in other countries.

His comments also represent a growing desire by his party to address fears of minority Sunni Arabs as Iraq prepares for national elections in early March. His party is expected to win enough seats to play a key role in choosing the next prime minister.

ISCI, which until 2008 was known as the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, was founded by Iraqi exiles in Iran in 1982 during the Iran-Iraq war.

The party’s military wing, the Badr Brigade, initially was trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Sunni Arabs and others have accused the party and its militia of serving as a proxy for Iran, not unlike Hezbollah and Hamas.

In 2005 and 2006, during the worst sectarian fighting in Iraq, militias affiliated with the party played a role in the ethnic cleansing of some neighborhoods of Baghdad.

The party also promoted autonomy for the south, seeking control over oil revenues in a manner similar to that of the Kurds in the north.

Mr. Hakim said that the Badr Brigade is no longer a militia and that many of its members have joined Iraq’s national army. He conceded, however, that even those outside the army are still armed - as are most Iraqis.

“They have sufficient weapons capable to protect themselves and it is legally authorized by the Iraqi government,” he said.

The young cleric said it was in Iraq’s “national interest” to have good relations with Iran, with which Iraq shares historic and religious ties, as well as an 870-mile border. With the exception of Lebanon and the tiny Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain, Iraq is the only majority Shi’ite nation in the Arab world.

The Iraqi Constitution, he said, bars legislation that contradicts the “principles of Islam,” but does not establish a religious council to review laws. It also says that freedom of religion should be respected.

Mr. Hakim, whose party currently has the most seats in parliament and is in a coalition that will run the March 7 elections, also sought to reach out to former members of Iraq’s deposed Ba’ath Party.

He distinguished between most former Ba’athists, who he said went along “with the previous regime without doing harm to the Iraqi people,” and those he called “Saddamists.”

Most of those who joined the party were “basically misled,” Mr. Hakim said. “We consider them Iraqis and we don’t like to call them Ba’athists. The Ba’ath Party is gone without returning. They have the rights just like the rest of the Iraqis.”

Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party was dominated by Sunni Arabs, about one-fifth of Iraq’s 27 million people.

As for the Saddamists, he said, those “with a special agenda, who still move in the logic of conspiracy, they carry in their heads the dream of going back to power and they continue to harm the Iraqi people, and are implicated in the terrorist attacks, they have no place in the new Iraq. We will not let them have any presence in the Iraqi institutions.”

Mr. Hakim also sought to underline his party’s Arab credentials, noting its history of supporting Palestinians in their conflict with Israel.

“We believe we are part of the Arab world,” he said. “We don’t expect Iraq would have a different stance from the other Arabs on Israel. As long as the Palestinian people are facing all kinds of pressures continuously, as long as all Arab peace initiatives have not been looked at seriously, it is unexpected you will find a positive stance of Iraq towards Israel,” he said.

Mr. Hakim said he approved of President Obama’s vision of the U.S. relationship with the Muslim world, calling it “balanced.”

Nonetheless, he said, he was disappointed by the recent U.S. decision to push for Israel-Palestinian negotiations without getting Israel to freeze the construction of settlements in Muslim East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

“We cannot hide from you that we were disappointed on the stance in terms of the Palestinian issue,” he said. “We felt [Mr. Obama] has been descending from the things he said before. We have to wait and see and monitor what is happening in the future.”

Nevertheless, his comments about Israel were much milder than those in Iran, whose president has called for Israel’s destruction. Rival Iraqi Shi’ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr is also known for his overt hostility toward the Jewish state.

Mr. Hakim said he was pleased by the pace of U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Since June, U.S. soldiers have pulled out of cities and turned over security to Iraqi forces.

“Certainly we feel delighted to see the United States applying and implementing the agreement of withdrawal,” he said. “We look forward for these forces to go back to their country. We don’t want the Iraqi-American relationship [to be] of a military color only.”

Mr. Hakim said that no American or Iraqi officials have publicly raised the prospect of keeping some U.S. bases or troops in Iraq past Dec. 31, 2011, the date all U.S. troops are required to exit Iraq according to the Status of Forces Agreement signed last year.

He suggested, however, that the U.S. might continue military training and arms sales, saying those matters were best left to “military experts.”

ISCI is part of an electoral alliance that includes followers of Sheik al-Sadr and remnants of the Shi’ite Dawa party that have split with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Mr. Hakim said he was open to including Mr. al-Maliki and his supporters in a political coalition after March 7 elections.

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