When Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim succumbed to lung cancer on Aug. 26, his death could have left Iraq's largest Shi'ite political party in turmoil if it weren't for a son that had been long groomed to take his father's place. Ammar al-Hakim was confirmed as the Iranian-backed SIIC's next leader this week and will begin his work promoting Shi'ite policies throughout the country. With elections expected in January and U.S. troops beginning their Iraq drawdown, the country stands at a critical point. Al-Hakim's ascent to power is being watched closely by many in the international community with special attention being paid to his close ties with Iran.
The 38-year-old wears the black turban of those who claim descent from the Prophet Muhammad. From the age of 9, he would address thousands of Shi'ite faithful at mosques and religious festivals in Iran, where his family was exiled in 1979 by Saddam Hussein's Sunni regime. Al-Hakim was educated in Iran's theological colleges.
While in exile, al-Hakim's uncle and father formed the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (formerly the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq) during the Iran-Iraq War. Al-Hakim's father returned to Iraq in April 2003, a year after the U.S. invasion, and the SIIC quickly rose to prominence there.
Since his father's diagnosis of lung cancer in May 2007, the younger al-Hakim has been in charge of the party's day-to-day activities. He has worked to create a "strategic alliance between Najaf and Washington." Najaf, about two hours south of Baghdad, is the holiest city for the world's Shi'ites, who make up 60% of Iraq's population.
Reeling from losses in local elections to Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's followers early this year, members of the SIIC joined forces in August with the Sadrists and Sunni factions to form the Iraqi National Alliance excluding Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa party. The Alliance is expected to mount a challenge to al-Maliki in the January 2010 elections.
Al-Hakim's Shaheed al-Mihrab Foundation has erected 400 mosques in Iraq since 2003 and has opened a chain of schools in Najaf. The foundation also recruits people to the SIIC by paying for marriages, giving gifts and cash to newlyweds and offering free education at the schools.
In February 2007, U.S. troops detained al-Hakim as he crossed into Iraq from Iran in a heavily armed convoy. The officials said they only had questions about his passport but allegedly blindfolded and strip-searched him. The then U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, issued an apology to al-Hakim, which he accepted.
"I don't believe there is a conflict between us and the dear Sunni people in Iraq that needs mediation."
In a televised interview. (Middle East Broadcasting, transcript from Federal News Service, Sept. 28, 2005)
"We will not allow or respond to the calls for the return of the Saddamist Baath Party. However, we have no problem coexisting with ordinary Baathists who have merged into society or those who have not yet merged but want to."
In a televised broadcast on Martyr Day in Iraq. (Al-Iraqiyah TV, July 21, 2007)
"Unfortunately, the liberation of Iraq left a vacuum. In this vacuum have come men who call themselves the guardian of man. But they have killed millions. They have done this in the name of religion, although the Koran forbids killing."
During the annual Forum 2000 in Prague where global participants meet to discuss key issues facing civilization. (UPI, Oct. 23, 2008)
"I call for the formation of a wide national front to include all lists and blocs and alliances of national powers in our country. With solidarity we can revive the political process and confront the big challenges inside Iraq and at regional level."
At a press conference after he was confirmed as the new leader of the SIIC. (AP, Sept. 1, 2009)
"He exudes compassion and calm belying his age."
Marc Ellenbogen, chairman of the Global Panel Foundation. (UPI, Oct. 23, 2008)
"Voting for Ammar al-Hakim is normal because of the symbolism of his family name and the sacrifices that the family made."
SIIC lawmaker Nabil Ismail on voting for al-Hakim. (AlArabiya.net, Aug. 31, 2009)
"Ammar is a knowledgeable and mighty person and is competent for leading the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council."
Humam Hamoudi, SIIC lawmaker in the Iraqi Foreign Affairs Committee. (UPI, Sept. 1, 2009)