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--Prominent Iraqi Shiite Cleric, Politician, Head of Religious Dynasty in Iraq Dies

--Analyst Says Hakim's Departure from Political Scene Could Lead To Infighting

The leader of one of Iraq's most powerful Shiite Muslim political groups and most important religious dynasties died on Wednesday, adding to uncertainty in a violent run-up to an election next January. Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who headed the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI), a major partner in the Shiite-led government, died while undergoing treatment for cancer in Iran, ISCI said. "It is a painful event and a great tragedy," the ISCI-owned television station quoted Ammar alHakim, his son and likely successor as party leader, as saying. ISCI officials said two funerals would be held, in Iran and in Iraq. Born in 1950, Hakim had lead ISCI since 2003 after his brother, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqer al-Hakim, was killed by a car bomb. ISCI is part of Iraq's ruling Shiite alliance, which includes Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Dawa party, but it said this week it would lead a new group to compete in January's polls without Maliki.

Hakim's "death at this sensitive stage that we are going through is considered a big loss," Maliki said in a statement. Anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a fellow member of the new, mainly Shiite alliance said: "This is a promise from me to all his followers ... to be brothers and partners in this life and the next as they ask for the liberation of Iraq." White House spokesman Robert Gibbs extended condolences to Hakim's family and colleagues on behalf of the Obama administration. "We were saddened to learn of the passing of His Eminence Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who has played an important role in Iraq's national history," the White House statement said.

Political analyst Hazim al-Nuaimi said the loss of ISCI's chief peacemaker could lead to infighting. ISCI must take care to line up behind the new leader, whoever he may be, in the five months before what are sure to be fiercely contested elections. "Anyone who sees ISCI as vulnerable will try to take its place," said Mohammed Abdul Jabar, a former Shiite politician who now edits a weekly magazine. Jalal al-Din al-Sagheer, who heads ISCI's parliament bloc, said Ammar al-Hakim would be interim party chief and that a permanent leader would be chosen soon by senior clerics.

Delicate Time

The leadership change at ISCI occurs at a turbulent moment in Iraq as the sectarian bloodshed unleashed by the 2003 U.S. invasion fades but bomb attacks pick up again. Iraq regained some sovereignty when U.S. forces pulled out of urban centers in June, but a spate of bombings in recent weeks has undermined public confidence in local security forces. The bombings, including two on Aug. 19 that devastated the foreign and finance ministries and killed 95 people, also dealt a blow to Maliki's efforts before the January election to claim credit for a fall in overall violence. The overtly religious ISCI became a major political player in majority Shiite Iraq after the U.S. invasion ousted Sunni Muslim dictator Saddam Hussein. It was founded in neighboring Shiite Iran, where many ISCI leaders lived for years in exile during Saddam's rule. But despite their close ties to Tehran, an arch foe of Washington, ISCI leaders also enjoy U.S. support.

Iranian media said a ceremony would be held on Thursday outside Iraq's embassy in Tehran and Hakim's body would then be taken to the Shiite holy city of Najaf, in Iraq, for burial. Although ISCI lost ground to Maliki's Dawa in provincial elections last January, the well-organized and well-funded party has major clout and will be a formidable competitor in January. ISCI has several members in top ministerial posts and has influence in Iraq's security forces. ISCI derives much of its support from the Hakim family name, revered among Shiites for its lineage of scholars and sacrifice in the face of assaults by Saddam and other violence. Ammar al-Hakim appears to have been groomed for succession, but there are other key figures in the party. In May, Hakim entrusted top ISCI member Humam Hamoudi to repair the ruling Shiite alliance. One of Iraq's two vice presidents, Adel Abdul-Mehdi, is also an important ISCI member with strong support within the party.

How Will Hakim's Death Affect Iraq

The party will do its utmost to ensure the succession is smooth, at least on the surface. Party insiders say Ammar al-Hakim will undoubtedly be the public face of the ISCI because of the cachet of his family name. He will be helped by a council of senior advisers, some of whom may actually pull many of the party's strings. Some senior figures within the ISCI oppose a dynastic succession. A power struggle or split cannot be ruled out, and authorities may find it hard to rein in any violence. Additionally, Tehran is sure to try to influence the party's future course.

What Will Be Impact On Coalition?

The ISCI rushed this week to announce the new Shiite-led coalition to contest the next parliamentary election while Abdul Aziz alHakim was lying on his deathbed in Iran. The new coalition Maliki and his Dawa party, the ISCI's main Shiite partner in the current government. Lawmakers close to Maliki say he pushed for the Shiite-based United Iraqi Alliance, which took control of the government after the 2005 elections, to become more open to other groups, such as Sunnis and ethnic Kurds. Maliki has also insisted that his Dawa party and its allies have more say within the alliance.

Reports say he insisted that he be guaranteed the prime minister's position if the alliance won a majority in January. Under Hakim, the ISCI clearly resisted Maliki's demands. His death may change that stance. Internal power struggles or a lack of clarity over the succession may briefly weaken the ISCI and strengthen Maliki's Dawa, persuading ISCI party managers to be more accommodating to the prime minister's demands. A weakened or distracted ISCI could also give Maliki increased confidence to contest the election on his own, at the head of a broad coalition.

Sectarian Rebalancing?

The ISCI has so far been well-organized and well-funded, and is quite capable of managing a smooth succession leaving it strong and unified. If it does not, the Shiite majority as a whole may be politically weakened or distracted from national issues. That might give minority Sunnis, who dominated Iraq under Saddam and many of whom fear they are being sidelined by the Shiite-led government, more room for political maneuver. A greater sense among Sunnis that they have a fair share of power could erode support for the Sunni Islamist insurgency. U.S. officials view Sunni disgruntlement as a major threat to Iraqi stability. It has fed the insurgency that continues to stage major bombings ahead of the election.

Effect on Prime Minister Maliki

Maliki is the political figure who stands to gain the most from instability or disagreements within the ISCI. Once viewed by many of his coalition partners as weak and malleable, Maliki emerged as Iraq's most influential Shiite figure after provincial elections in January 2009. Allies of his Dawa party posted strong gains in the Shiite south, mostly at the expense of the ISCI.
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Title Annotation:Today's News Highlights
Publication:The Daily Middle East Reporter (Beirut, Lebanon)
Date:Aug 27, 2009
Previous Article:Palestinian affairs.
Next Article:Iraq Premier Maliki hits back at critics.

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