Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim Dies in Tehran

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 26 August 2009 14:12

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.

6 Responses to “Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim Dies in Tehran”

  1. With the death of Abdul-Aziz and his son Ammar’s possible lack of preparedness to step in, do you see any possibility of Muqtada al-Sadr stepping in as the most visible leader of the newly established INA? Or would any such move by Muqtada leave the INA more or less still-born?

  2. Reidar Visser said

    I have the impression that there has been an informal agreement between the Sadr and Hakim camps to stay a little in the background; possibly that could be the reason why Ibrahim al-Jaafari has been quite prominent as a spokesperson for the new alliance. Sadrist unease over Hakim’s leadership dominance was a major issue in the old UIA, but, as you suggest, any counter-move by Muqtada to grab power in the absence of Hakim could make things come out of balance again. When it comes to the INA, I think the circumstances of its birth, with the strong dominance by Shiite parties, in themselves may be sufficient to discredit it as a sectarian project, despite the Iraqi nationalist rhetoric. It has been suggested that there is now (i.e. in Hakim’s absence) more space for Maliki in the INA, but any decision by him to join it at this late stage will probably be interpreted as a reversion to a sectarian agenda by the Iraqi public.

  3. Thanks. I wonder, though, about Muqtada’s motives and direction from this point on. He seems to have gone from firebrand Iraqi nationalist (though very much a religious Shii) to Iran’s embrace (and protection), including ramping up his credentials as a would-be ayatollah by studying at Qom (not Najaf, where perhaps his life would have been at risk, but which is still the pre-eminent seminary, no?). Which for me begs the question . . . I know that Sistani is aged and perhaps not in the best of health, and assume that other ayatollahs of the Najaf hawza outrank Muqtada and would be more likely to succeed Sistani. But could Muqtada be setting himself up to perhaps parlay his new credentials, his al-Sadr lineage, his populist appeal, and his return to Iraq via the INA to stage a power play? Or am I attributing too much ambition, and foresight, to him?

  4. Reidar Visser said

    I think the best parallel for understanding Muqtada’s motives might be the career of Muhammad al-Yaqubi. He managed to obtain ijazas from some rather obscure mujtahids in Iran in 2002/2003 and then returned to become a moderately successful marja with his own political party (Fadila). Normally, Muqtada would be far too young to do this but Yaqubi did it when he was in his early fifties which is also comparatively young age in this context, so maybe with his pedigree and a pre-existing political organisation he might just be able to pull it off… Although I can’t help thinking the Iranians are still worried about what he is really up to and might be happier to keep him in Qum, where he can be more easily controlled.

  5. Charlie Brown said

    You may find this of interest–perhaps an interesting link for your blogroll.

  6. Salah said

    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.

    I don’t this so, US to this level of stupidity don’t know that.

    If you ask any Iraqi on the street you will find the right answer, so how and why “United States was unable to correctly interpret his physical movements”

    This need to be analysing more deep in many case that the statement by Saudis prince by saying ” US handed Iraq on a Golden Plate to Iran”

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