Iraqi Election Catapults Critic of U.S. to Power

Abdelaziz Hakim has clashed with American officials, but says he will strive for national unity.

By T. Christian Miller

Los Angeles Times

February 14, 2005

BAGHDAD — The triumph of a Shiite Muslim slate in Iraq's national elections is a victory for one of the nation's most enigmatic figures and a consistent critic of U.S. policy: senior cleric Abdelaziz Hakim.

Hakim leads the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the most powerful party on the United Iraqi Alliance slate, which claimed about half the seats in the transitional National Assembly.

Though he is listed as the top candidate on the alliance's election list and will have a seat in the assembly, Hakim has ruled out holding a leadership position such as president or prime minister. It is widely believed, however, that he will exert powerful influence over whomever is selected to lead Iraq.

That has left many in the U.S. and Iraq anxious about Hakim, a soft-spoken man who worked closely with Iranian officials during nearly 20 years as an exiled militia leader opposed to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Over the decades, Hakim has consistently declared himself in favor of democratic elections, but he has been guarded about his precise vision for Iraq's government. For instance, when pressed in a recent television interview on whether Islam should be the source of law in Iraq, Hakim demurred, professing a desire for comity and dialogue.

"Maybe this or another thing," said Hakim, a diminutive figure who typically wears a dark robe and a black turban indicating direct descent from the Prophet Muhammad. "Everything is to be discussed and all made satisfied."

In many ways, Sunday's triumph for the United Iraqi Alliance is a victory of perseverance for Hakim, who fled Iraq about 25 years ago.

Hakim hails from a long line of powerful, respected clerics in Iraq's southern Shiite heartland. The family was relentlessly persecuted by Hussein and his fellow Sunni Muslims in the Baath Party; Hakim has said that Hussein's government killed more than 60 of his relatives over the years.

For most of his time in exile in Iran, Hakim stood in the shadow of his elder half-brother, Mohammed Bakr Hakim, who turned the Supreme Council into a powerful opposition group. During the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, the Badr Brigade, led by the younger Hakim, harassed Iraqi troops from his base in Iran. Some Iraqi prisoners of war accused the group of torture.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, Hakim was active in the byzantine array of competing opposition groups seeking to overthrow Hussein. But unlike other exiled leaders such as interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi or Ahmad Chalabi, who aligned themselves with American allies, Hakim frequently opposed the United States.

He argued against a U.S.-led attack against Iraq after Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, saying it would only inflame Arab passions and remove focus from overthrowing the dictator.

The U.S. literally shut Hakim out of the tent during an early attempt to form a government after Hussein's ouster in the U.S.-led invasion of 2003. As U.S. leaders met with handpicked Iraqi leaders in an air-conditioned tent in Iraq that April, Hakim stood outside with his followers, protesting that Iraqis — not Americans — should choose an interim government.

"Anything other than this tramples on the rights of the Iraqi people," he told the Washington Post.

Hakim's brother later made a triumphant return to Iraq, and was seen as a future leader. But in August 2003 he was killed in a massive car bomb outside the holiest site in Shiite Islam, the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf.

Hakim stepped in to take his brother's place. Although considered young — he is believed to be in his mid-50s — he has won widespread support.

He developed a close relationship with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most powerful Shiite cleric in Iraq.

A follower of the so-called quietest school, Sistani believes that clerics should not participate directly in politics. Thus, his communications with U.S. officials have often been through Hakim, now one of Sistani's closest allies.

In January 2004, Hakim met with President Bush in Washington to discuss the timetable for elections in Iraq. Without specifying a date for U.S. troops to leave Iraq, Hakim has said he would seek to negotiate a schedule for their departure.

In recent days, Hakim seemed to launch a public relations offensive, giving interviews to a series of media outlets. He repeatedly denied that he took instructions from Iran, and said he was open to working with all of Iraq's different ethnic and political groups.

However, he cautioned that Iraq must remain an Islamic state, with laws that do not contradict Islamic teachings — a nuanced position that does not insist on a theocracy but allows room for religion to play a major role in politics.

"As Iraqis, we have to look to Iraq," Hakim said in the recent television interview.

"We are not calling for a theocratic government because we have such pluralism."