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Iraq: Ayatollah Al-Hakim's Return Adds New Political Uncertainties

  • Charles Recknagel

The leader of Iraq's biggest Shi'ite Muslim political group -- the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) -- has returned home after years of exile in Iran. Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim is bringing out large crowds of supporters as he tours southern Iraqi cities and demands Iraq be governed by Iraqis alone. RFE/RL reports on the ayatollah's return.

Prague, 12 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The return of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim further complicates the Iraqi political scene just as Washington prepares to form the nucleus of an interim domestic leadership next month.

The 63-year-old al-Hakim returned to Iraq over the weekend after more than two decades of exile in neighboring Iran. There, he formed a movement advocating theocratic rule for Iraq and conducted a low-level, cross-border guerrilla war against the regime of Saddam Hussein. His movement, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), was directly supported with funds by Tehran and with arms by Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard.

As he crossed the border and drove to Al-Basrah on 10 May, the returning ayatollah was greeted by thousands of supporters. In Al-Basrah, up to 100,000 people packed a stadium to listen to him address them for the first time in 23 years. In a speech interrupted several times by chanting, he thanked Iran for its support and rejected any U.S. efforts to name a government for Iraq.

Al-Hakim told the crowd, "this government must be chosen by Iraqis and totally independent." He said, "We will not accept a government that is imposed upon us."

Later, at a smaller rally in Al-Nasiriyah, he also portrayed the U.S.-British occupation of the country as a danger to national identity.

"Do the Americans accept it if the English govern their country, even though they share a similar culture? How can we accept a foreign government whose language is different from ours, whose skin is different from ours? Oh brothers, we will fight and fight so that the government we have is independent, that it is Iraqi," he said.

Al-Hakim arrived today in Al-Najaf, where he was again greeted by tens of thousands of supporters. Al-Najaf is the center of the Iraqi Shi'a religious leadership.

The ayatollah had been the only main Iraqi exile figure still outside the country, and his return coincides with imminent U.S. efforts to start some form of power-sharing arrangement with Iraqi leaders. Washington has said it hopes to form a nucleus for domestic leadership in June. The powers of the domestic interim leadership -- which is to comprise exile groups including SCIRI, the two main Kurdish factions, and Iraqis who did not leave the country -- have yet to be detailed.

Falih Abdul Jabbar, a sociologist at the University of London, said al-Hakim will likely start by cooperating with any new U.S.-created administration, despite his public rejection of U.S. efforts to "impose" a government. SCIRI has said in recent months that it is willing to work initially within a national parliamentary system.

But Jabbar said the returning ayatollah remains committed to his original goals of having an Islamic state in Iraq, something Washington has ruled out. He said this means any concessions by al-Hakim in cooperating with U.S. officials now are only a short-term strategic move to gain time to build his own power base.

"He has been dreaming for 23 years or so that he would have [an Iranian Islamic Revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini-type of return with millions greeting him and obeying his instructions and taking to the streets to establish an Islamic state. But, of course, he is facing formidable rivals now," Jabbar said.

Jabbar said one of al-Hakim's first moves will be to decide whether he can best build his influence among the Shi'a by casting himself as a political leader or as a religious one. A top SCIRI spokesman, al-Hakim's nephew Mohsen, told Reuters early this month that the ayatollah might quit as the group's head in order to be above the political fray.

Leaving SCIRI would put al-Hakim in the position of an independent cleric issuing fatwas, or religious rulings, on political issues such as U.S.-Iraqi relations. The ayatollah is considered likely to be succeeded in the party leadership by his younger brother Abdel-Aziz, who is now his deputy.

But analyst Jabbar said that whatever al-Hakim's choice, he is likely to continue playing the same role he did since leaving Iraq 23 years ago after being tortured by Hussein's regime for political activism. The analyst said that, in exile, al-Hakim has been a tireless voice propounding theocracy and decrying democracy and that there is no reason to expect his message to change.

"He has been for such a long time under the Iranian [Islamic revolution's] influence. Secondly, he has not written a single word in the documents of SCIRI that [indicates] he envisages a democratic system. And three, to the best of my knowledge, he considers democracy, nationalism, and patriotism as artifacts of pre-Islamic concepts that are inadmissible," Jabbar said.

Al-Hakim is now expected to take up residence in Al-Najaf and immediately start a newspaper to voice his opinions. His presence in the holy city is likely to raise tensions there as he becomes the third man in a triangle of clerics currently competing for dominance among Iraq's Shi'a majority.

One of his rivals is Moqtadah al-Sadr, who also regards Iran's theocracy as a model for Iraq but who says leadership belongs to those who never left the country. Al-Sadr is the son of the highly respected Grand Ayatollah Muhammad al-Sadr, who was assassinated by presumed Hussein agents in 1999.

Hakim's other rival is Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is believed to favor keeping the Iraqi Shi'ite clergy out of politics.

The potential for violence over tensions within the Shi'a leadership was amply demonstrated by the recent murder of Shaykh Abd al-Majid al-Khoi, another prominent cleric. Al-Khoi, who was pro-American, was assassinated shortly after he returned to Al-Najaf from exile in London last month.