Hakim launches vote campaign for alliance

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s most powerful politician, a secretive cleric who once led a militia based in Iran, launched the campaign this weekend of a Shiite alliance set to win the biggest number of seats in this month’s parliamentary vote.

Two years after appearing on Iraq’s murky political scene, Abdul-Aziz Hakim remains difficult to read — a soft-spoken man with a reputation for ruthlessness and a preference for pulling strings behind the scenes.

Although a member of parliament, Hakim rarely attends sessions. He is running again in the December 15 elections.

“My aim is to serve and defend the people of Iraq,” Hakim told the Associated Press. “And this is what determines where I want to be.” Still, there is little question that Hakim is the most influential figure within the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance, which also includes Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari.

Hakim’s power base is the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, which is part of the Alliance and which was founded in Iran in 1982. His late brother, Mohammed Baqir Hakim, ran SCIRI, with the younger Hakim heading the military wing, the Badr Brigade.

After the brothers returned from Iran after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the elder Hakim continued in the leadership role until he was killed in a massive car bombing in Najaf in August 2003. The younger Hakim swiftly assumed SCIRI’s leadership, despite doubts that his clerical pedigree and political skills were up to the job.

Two years later, Hakim shows little of the charisma or the oratorical skills of his late brother. But he is credited with an important achievement — helping to formalise Shiite domination of postwar Iraq by forging an alliance that swept to power in the January elections.

The Alliance is expected to take the biggest number of seats on December 15.

In launching the Alliance campaign Saturday, Hakim told a news conference that the country “needs those who are strong and honest.” He appeared with a group of candidates, including Jaafari, leader of Dawa Party, and senior politician Hussain Shahristani.

“We will be the nation’s protectors and saviours,” Hakim said.

Hakim’s coalition won a significant boost Saturday when aides to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s most revered Shiite leader, said the cleric has signalled to followers that they should vote for the Shiite ticket.

If the alliance ends up the dominant faction in the new parliament, Hakim will have come closer to achieving his goal of becoming the effective leader of all Shiite political groups.

Hakim recently told Shiite tribal leaders that the December election will be his last.

“He has no plans to be the spiritual leader of the Shiites or return to the seminary in Najaf,” said Ridha Jawad Taqi, a senior SCIRI official. “He will continue to be involved in politics and become the leader of all political Shiite groups as well as a national leader.” Hakim studied at a Shiite seminary in Najaf until 1980 when he fled to overwhelmingly Shiite Iran. SCIRI’s close ties to Iran and charges that Badr militiamen have been involved in violent attacks against Sunni Arabs have made Hakim a controversial figure.

But the 55-year-old cleric has long maintained that SCIRI does not take orders from Tehran. In an interview with the AP, he blamed the killings of Sunni Arabs on Saddam Hussein loyalists and Muslim extremists trying to push the country into civil war.

“A total of 80,000 Iraqis have been killed since the fall of the regime,” said the bearded Hakim, wearing a black turban and robe. “Most of them are Shiites.” The close ties between Iran and Iraq’s Shiite political establishment present a problem for the United States, which relies on Shiite support while remaining at odds with Iran.

Unlike secular-mined Shiite politicians like Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi or former prime minister Iyad Allawi, Hakim appears suspicious of Washington, viewing the Americans as useful partners at best.

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