Thousands of mourners lined the streets Saturday morning to pay their respects to Shia leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who died last week from lung cancer. Although he never chose to take an active political role within the central government, his role as leader of the major Shia group the United Iraqi Alliance, his influence and the importance of his passing in Iraq is easily comparable to that of late Sen. Ted Kennedy in the United States.
In recent years, al-Hakim has been a supporter of the United States; in taking such a position, however, he had to overcome an extremely rocky past. In 1991, when the United States ousted Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, al-Hakim and his older brother, Muhammad Bakr, led a revolutionary force in the south. When the United States failed to aid them in their attempt, their forces were brutally crushed and they lost 30,000 troops and civilians.
Then in 1999, al-Hakim’s party, Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI), refused congressional funding. His party also openly opposed US plans for invasion of Iraq in 2002. As a result, then-Vice President Dick Cheney named the group an insurgent militia. It was not until mid-2003 that the ISCI decided to join the interim council.
This was also the year that al-Hakim truly came into his own. When his older brother was killed in a suicide bombing, Abdul Aziz became the supreme leader of the party. He proved to be tremendously important in preventing civil war between Shias and Shiites, thanks to his cool-headed leadership.
In the following years, al-Hakim played a crucial role in uniting Shia factions and leading modern Iraq as a pro-American state. In 2004 he played a leading role in the successful creation of the United Iraqi Alliance, a group which brings together 22 different rival Shia factions. The importance of this union cannot be underestimated, particularly for many Americans who rely in large part upon good relations with the ISCI to continue their work in Iraq.
He was also instrumental in assuring that relations with Iran would not further disintegrate. During the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, the al-Hakim family fled to Iran and there formed the revolutionary party that continues today as ISCI. Fighting on the side of the Iranians provided al-Hakim with connections that afforded him much-needed Iranian support, although these close ties were sometimes politically harmful in Iraq.
The al-Hakim family is revered within the Shia community for its tradition of scholarship and longtime resistance to Saddam Hussein. Over the course of the resistance, al-Hakim lost eight brothers and 36 extended family members to the cause. Over the past few months, al-Hakim’s son Ammar has been preparing to succeed his father. Thanks to the prestige his family has garnered over the years, the succession process should not prove to be contentious; nevertheless, Ammar’s leadership will need to be at least as successful as his father’s if the ISCI is to thrive in the upcoming elections.
Fortunately, Ammar al-Hakim has already proven to be a talented politician. When al-Hakim fell ill in 2007, tensions arose within the United Iraqi Alliance and positive relations between all factions were only renewed days before his death. Ammar had an instrumental role in the formation of the new ticket, which excludes the Islamic Dawa Party. This was a politically important move, because it brings into the open intra-Shia schisms before the elections of January 2010.
Nevertheless, the party’s political standing was greatly damaged by the internal rivalries of the past few years. In the coming months, Ammar al-Hakim will either rise to fill his father’s shoes, or he will make decisions for which the nation will suffer.
Furthermore, America’s role in Iraq could be greatly damaged if the pro-American ISCI falls from power. In mid-2004, young Shia leader Sheikh Muqtada al-Sadr gained control of several important ISCI holdings in Southern Iraq and sought to lead an anti-American Shia party into power. Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim neutralized the group and regained the region, but al-Sadr remains a political force to be reckoned with. If the elections fall in the favor of al-Sadr or any of his ilk, American efforts in reconstructing a pro-American Iraq could be severely affected.
Over the next few months, Ammar Hakim will be closely watched by the United States government, whether he receives international media attention or not. The world will have to wait until January to determine whether his political efforts will come to fruition or flounder, along with the party.
Rosaleen O’Sullivan is a junior majoring in international relations and English.