After a long battle with lung cancer, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), has died in Tehran.
More than anything, through his political career, Hakim became a symbol of the chaos, the contradictions and the opportunism that have characterised Iraq in the post-2003 period. Having abandoned religious studies at an early level, Hakim made a professional career in the 1980s as a political-military operator in what was then called the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a Khomeinist outfit created by Iran in 1982 in order to maximise its control of the Iraqi opposition during the Iran–Iraq War. He returned to Iraq from Iran after the start of the Iraq War in 2003, and in August that year, after the death of his brother Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim in a terrorist attack in Najaf, was propelled to the top leadership position in SCIRI. Hakim had earlier lost all his other brothers in confrontations with the Baathist regime; this experience probably explains his subsequent transformation to a hardliner in issues relating to national reconciliation in Iraq.
It was during 2005 in particular that Hakim would make his mark on the post-2003 politics of Iraq, through a series of remarkable policy initiatives. Ever since the first pre-war opposition conferences in 2002, SCIRI had managed to wrestle itself to the unlikely position as the preferred partner of the United States in “dealing with the Shiite community of Iraq” (a strategy that in itself was predicated on a belief in Washington that the complexities of Iraqi politics would be best approached through sectarian lenses), and it consolidated this position between 2003 to 2005 by appealing to sectarian identity as a basis for political power. Then, in August 2005, Hakim dramatically launched a bid to create a federal region that would comprise the nine Shiite-majority governorates south of Baghdad – an overt projection of sectarian identity onto Iraq’s administrative map that had hitherto been the preserve of Israelis, Kuwaitis and pro-Kurdish American senators, and a scenario so radical and divisive that its sheer presence on the political agenda added a major obstacle to Iraq’s process of national reconciliation. Later, in October 2005, SCIRI was the moving spirit behind the Iraqi constitution that was adopted by the Iraqi electorate in a chaotic referendum. Voters had apparently been unable to acquaint themselves with the details of the new Iraqi charter, but in the sectarian atmosphere that prevailed ended up giving their consent to a document that took away almost all governmental power from the capital and gave it instead to the provinces and the federal regions.
During 2007, as US Democrats led by Joe Biden intensified their campaign for “pro-active federalisation” of Iraq, Hakim and SCIRI discovered that the idea of Shiite region appeared to be highly unpopular even among the inhabitants it was supposed to appeal to. Nevertheless, Hakim’s party held on to its strategic alliance, on an ethno-sectarian basis, between Shiites and Kurds, and continued to preach a message of general decentralisation (even if there was now a move towards a greater focus on the existing governorates rather than the creation of a new Shiite federal region). This message did not go well with Iraqi voters either; Hakim’s list performed poorly in the 2009 local elections.
Throughout the post-war period, Hakim masterfully managed to balance US and Iranian pressures and was successful in creating the impression in Washington that SCIRI was on course to liberate itself from Iranian overlordship. This involved theatrics such as a name change in May 2007, where SCIRI became ISCI (without the “revolution”) and where the rumour was circulated (but never officially confirmed) that ISCI would henceforth take its orders from the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf in Iraq, instead of from Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. Simultaneously, Hakim, who himself was never an Islamic scholar of repute, managed to create the impression of religious authority among Americans by focusing on his status as the son of a Shiite luminary (the Grand Ayatollah Muhsin al-Hakim) and as a sayyid (descendant of the Prophet), thereby prompting many international journalists to describe him as a “leading cleric” and one of the most “powerful” politicians of Iraq. It was only gradually since 2008 – and more pronouncedly since the local elections in January 2009 – that the idea of ISCI as a loyal ally of Iran returned to US policy-making circles in earnest.
Hakim’s health began to deteriorate several years ago, but he remained a vital policy-maker until his death. Since May 2009, from his convalescent home in Tehran, he presided over a series of meetings with Iraqi politicians that prepared the ground for the revamping of the Shiite political alliance (UIA or the United Iraqi Alliance) that he had been instrumental in crafting back in 2004. Responding to experiences from the local elections, the newly formed Iraqi National Alliance (INA) now accords greater rhetorical emphasis to the idea of Iraqi national unity, but its programme still remains remorseless towards former Baathists (who are to be “cleansed” from the Iraqi state), and ISCI still keeps focusing on an ideology of radical decentralisation which many Iraqis believe contradict the idea of national unity.
Hakim chose to be treated for cancer in Iran and it is remarkable that the United States was unable to correctly interpret his physical movements as the most revealing indicator of his true political loyalties. Since 2003 and until today, Hakim, SCIRI/ISCI and members of the Badr brigades have travelled in and out of Iran without any restriction. It was Iranian territory that was used to orchestrate the new INA. It is inconceivable that the authorities in Tehran would have allowed these processes to go on within their own borders had they not felt that right until his death Hakim was pursuing a policy that was in Iran’s best interests. Instead, however, Washington for a long time clung to a rosy scenario in which ISCI was seen as a potential convert to the American cause; ultimately it was the contradictions in this policy that would create the space for Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim’s peculiar political career.