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Iraqi Shi'ite Party Leader Dies, Successor Eyed

Abdul Aziz al-Hakim had been suffering from cancer.
BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- The leader of one of Iraq's most powerful Shi'a Muslim political groups and most important religious dynasties has died, said his party's parliamentary leader, Jalal al-Din al-Saghir.

The death of Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, who had been suffering from cancer, added to political uncertainty ahead of national polls in January and at a time when Iraq has seen a series of devastating bombings.

Hakim, born in 1950, headed the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) since 2003, after his brother, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, was killed in a car bomb. Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim's son Ammar al-Hakim is expected to next lead the ISCI.

ISCI is part of Iraq's ruling Shi'ite alliance, which also includes Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Dawah party, but ISCI announced this week it would lead a new group to compete in January's polls without Maliki.

The overtly religious party became a major political player in majority Shi'ite Iraq after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion ousted Sunni Muslim dictator Saddam Hussein, and its role in the Iraqi government was backed by the United States.

It was founded in neighboring Shi'ite Iran, where many of its senior leaders lived for years in exile during Saddam's rule.

Although ISCI lost ground to Maliki's Dawah in provincial elections last January, the well-organized and well-funded party wields major clout and will be a formidable competitor in January.

ISCI has several members in top ministerial posts and has influence in Iraq's security forces, which include members of ISCI's armed affiliate, the Badr Organization.

ISCI derives much of its support from the Hakim family name, revered among Shi'a for its lineage of scholars and sacrifice in the face of persecution by Hussein's Sunni-led regime.