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Iraq Leaders Mourn Death Of Key Shi'ite Figure

An honor guard carries the coffin of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim upon its arrival at Baghdad International Airport.
BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Iraqi leaders gathered at Baghdad airport to receive the body of a leading Shi'ite figure whose death could heighten political instability before national polls many fear may be marred by violence.

Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who headed one of Iraq's main Shi'ite Muslim parties, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI), died in Tehran on August 26 where he was being treated for cancer.

Men gathered at the airport sobbed audibly, and flowers were thrown on Hakim's coffin as it was carried off a plane from Iran. Near the plane, senior Iraqi officials sat in a mourning tent specially constructed for the ceremony.

Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a fellow Shi'ite Arab, President Jalal Talabani, an ethnic Kurd, and other senior figures offered their condolences to Ammar al-Hakim, one of Hakim's sons and a likely successor as the head of ISCI.

A member of Maliki's governing coalition, ISCI last week said it would lead a new, mostly Shi'ite alliance to compete in January's national polls with the notable of absence of Maliki, raising questions about a split among Iraq's Shi'ite majority.

"We should talk today of your loss to us Sayyid Hakim, while we are in a sensitive stage that is still critical," Maliki said in a speech using an honorific title for Hakim, making no overt references to Shi'ite politics.

ISCI and Maliki's Dawa party swept to power in 2005 polls as part of a broad Shi'ite coalition, but over the past year wrangling over alliances has intensified against a backdrop of continued violence that, as U.S. forces prepare to withdraw, raises doubts about the durability of Iraq's security gains.

Some analysts believe political jostling could intensify violence ahead of the parliamentary elections.

Hakim was born in 1950 and took over ISCI after his elder brother was killed in a car bomb in 2003. He is expected to be buried in Iraq's Shi'ite holy city of Najaf on August 29. His casket is expected to be taken to other Shi'ite sites first.

Founded in Iran in exile during Sunni Arab dictator Saddam Hussein's rule, ISCI derives much support from the Hakim family name, revered among Shi'ites for its lineage of scholars and sacrifice in the face of assaults by Hussein and other violence.

"We are confident that the vacuum left by the late al-Hakim will be filled by great men similar to his late brothers who precede him," Talabani said, referring to several of Hakim's brothers who were killed during Hussein's rule.