Prague, 29 Agust 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Iraq's best-known Shi'a political leader, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), was killed today in a car-bomb blast in the holy city of Al-Najaf in southern Iraq.
Al-Hakim was killed after delivering the Friday sermon at the Imam Ali Mosque, the holiest shrine for Shi'a Muslims. Unconfirmed reports say as many as 75 people were killed in the attack and many more were injured.
The attack comes just a week after a bomb exploded outside the house of al-Hakim's uncle, Muhammad Sa'id al-Hakim, also an influential Shi'a cleric and a resident of Al-Najaf. No one claimed responsibility for that attack, which slightly injured him but killed three of his staff.
It is not yet known who is behind today's attack.
Ali Reza Nourizadeh, the director of the Center for Arab-Iranian Studies in London and a political commentator, told RFE/RL that the killing of Baqir al-Hakim will have a devastating effect.
"You know that shows that the rivalries between the Shi'a groups and clergy has reached the point that they are using this sort of effort to eliminate each other," he said.
The killing is a major blow not only to the Iraqi Shi'a community, which makes up about 60 percent of Iraq's population, but also to coalition efforts to stabilize and reconstruct Iraq.
Nourizadeh said it is hard to determine which group carried out the attack, but the method used suggests the assassination was the work of a sophisticated organization rather than a small radical group. The analyst said he has no doubt that a more influential organization was behind the attack than a small group such as the followers of the young radical Shi'a cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr.
"The explosive was controlled by remote control, it was packed in a car very close to where Mr. Hakim was passing by. All of this shows that it was very well planned and it may have been done either by the remaining [loyalists] of Saddam Hussein regime who have access to that amount of explosive and remote control and all sorts of sophisticated tools or the elements of the Iranian regime who were not happy recently [about] the way Mr. Hakim's policy was pointing," Nourizadeh said
Nourizadeh said the death of al-Hakim will benefit radical Shi'a in Iraq, pro-Hussein loyalists, and conservatives in Iran, although this does not necessarily mean that any of these groups carried out the attack.
The son of Grand Ayatollah Mohsen al-Hakim, the spiritual leader of Iraqi Shi'ites, Baqir al-Hakim was born in Al-Najaf in 1939. After studying at a seminary and working as his father's representative, al-Hakim joined Ayatollah Sayid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr in founding a political group called the Islamic Movement in the late 1960s. Both ayatollahs were jailed several times for their opposition to Ba'athist rule. In 1980, al-Sadr was assassinated on the orders of Saddam Hussein, while al-Hakim fled abroad. In just two days in 1983, the Iraqi regime killed 16 of al-Hakim's relatives still living in Iraq.
In Iran, al-Hakim founded SCIRI, which organized opposition groups both within and outside of Iraq. It is the largest Iraqi Shi'a group and claims to have 10,000 fighters. After the 1991 uprisings against Hussein, he assumed his father's role as the unofficial leader of Iraq's Shi'a.
Al-Hakim returned to Iraq this May after 23 years in exile. Initially he was critical of the occupation. In May, at a rally in Al-Nasiriyah, he portrayed the occupation as a danger to Iraqi 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 than ours, whose skin is different than ours? Oh brothers, we will fight and fight so that the government we have is independent, that it is Iraqi," he said.
However, al-Hakim later changed his position and SCIRI chose to participate in the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. Al-Hakim's brother became a member of the council.
Al-Hakim himself took a moderate stance towards the Americans. He refused to condemn the U.S. presence or call for jihad (holy struggle) against the coalition.
Al-Hakim did not believe that Iran's theocratic government was a model for a future Iraq. In May, al-Hakim told Reuters, "We should not make a copy of the Iranian revolution and establish it in Iraq." He said instead there should be a separation of state and religion in Iraq.