Ayatollah's death deepens U.S. woes
- Cleric's death deepens U.S. woes
Spiritual, political figure backed transition effort
Mohammed Bakir Hakim, center, pushes through the main entrance to the
Holy Shrine of Imam Ali as he arrives in Najaf on May 12, after a 23-
year exile in Iran.
By Anthony Shadid
THE WASHINGTON POST
NAJAF, Iraq, Aug. 29 The death of Ayatollah Mohammed Bakir Hakim,
a rare cleric with political acumen and religious pedigree, may pose
the greatest challenge yet to U.S. efforts to court Iraq's Shiite
Muslim majority and bring stability to Iraq.
HAKIM, 64, A member of one of Iraq's most prominent clerical
families, headed the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in
Iraq (SCIRI), an opposition group he founded in 1982 while exiled in
Though his ties to the Islamic government in Iran long made
him suspect in the eyes of U.S. officials, his decision to enroll his
movement in the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council and, by
default, act as a proponent of U.S. efforts here, counted as one of
the true achievements of American diplomacy in postwar Iraq.
His death in today's car bombing at the Imam Ali shrine
removes his credibility and prestige from SCIRI, which is already
locked in a growing rivalry with younger, more militant clerics
seeking to give voice to Iraqis' growing frustration with the
Without him, U.S. officials lose perhaps their most important
interlocutor with the Shiite community at a time the Americans
acknowledge is, at best, delicate.
"There's no political replacement for him," Sheik Hamid Ali
Jaff, a 33-year-old cleric, said as he wandered through the
devastation left by the attack. "We'll have to wait many years for
U.S. officials have acknowledged the key role that Shiites
will play in any postwar arrangement.
Shiites suffered some of the worst brutality meted out by
President Saddam Hussein, with tens of thousands executed and exiled
in a repression that was especially pronounced after their failed
uprising after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. In contrast to Sunni
Muslims, the community that provided Hussein much of his support,
Shiites jubilantly welcomed his fall, even as some remained
suspicious of U.S. intentions.
In the crucial battles ahead over a new constitution and a
postwar government, their support is essential, and U.S. officials
have described the prospect of turmoil and infighting within Shiite
ranks as a nightmare scenario.
As evidenced by the outpouring of sentiment in Najaf, Baghdad
and other cities, Hakim's death will, in the short run, probably
conceal divisions among Shiite factions.
In a statement tonight, Moqtada Sadr, his chief rival and a
virulent opponent of the occupation, called for a three-day strike to
protest Hakim's death and a week of mourning to mark his passing. In
Sadr City, a sprawling Baghdad neighborhood where Hakim's support was
limited, thousands poured into the streets to demonstrate their
"Saddam is the enemy of God," they shouted.
But in the long term, those divisions seem likely to be
exacerbated, given tension already evident in recent months in
politics that, even to insiders, remain Byzantine and are marked by
In the days after Hussein's fall, an angry mob murdered
Abdel-Majid Khoei, a well-known cleric who was flown into Najaf by
the United States from exile in London. In the West, he was seen as
moderate, and his stated mission was to unify Shiite ranks.
Hakim, too, had emerged as a flexible figure. In 23 years of
exile, he advocated an Islamic state, reflecting the position of the
Iranian government that sheltered him and sanctioned the creation of
his military wing, known as the Badr Brigades.
On his return in May, his public statements softened. He still
criticized the occupation, but he spoke less of an Islamic state. In
his Friday sermons at the Imam Ali shrine, his message focused more
on Islamic unity and less on the shortcomings of the U.S.-led
His replacement will likely be his brother, Abdel-Aziz Hakim,
who already holds a seat on the 25-member Governing Council. Abdel-
Aziz Hakim headed the Badr Brigades but lacked his brother's
connections with more senior clergy and his reputation as an opponent
In the political arena, that leaves Sadr with perhaps the
greatest popular voice. A son of another prominent cleric, Sadr, 30,
has used his sermons at the mosque in Kufa, just a few miles from
Najaf, to deliver a message of empowerment for the Shiite poor and
disenfranchised, and his street support overshadowed Hakim's.
As a rallying cry, he has denounced the U.S. occupation and
proclaimed the formation of the Mahdi Army, so far an unarmed group
that seems more akin to a morals police force than a militia.
While both Hakim and Sadr were overshadowed in spiritual
matters by Iraq's most senior clerics, men like Grand Ayatollah Ali
Sistani, those clerics have eschewed a political role, deeming it
beneath their spiritual calling.
They have tacitly supported U.S. efforts, mainly by remaining
silent, but would be loath to play a more assertive role. Despite
U.S. pressure, they have resisted taking a more aggressive line
against Sadr, fearful of the strife such a confrontation might
Despite Sadr's denials, many in Najaf blamed him for Khoei's
killing and for an assassination attempt last week on another grand
ayatollah, Mohammed Saeed Hakim, the slain cleric's uncle. He escaped
with only scratches to his neck.
But in the streets around the shrine, where charred carcasses
of cars lay in pools mixed with blackened debris and blood, many
insisted that only loyalists of Hussein could carry out such carnage.
No Shiite, they said, would intentionally damage the gold-domed
shrine of Imam Ali, the son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad and the
man Shiites consider his heir.
If the car bomb was planted by Hussein loyalists, it shows a
telling recognition of the weaknesses of the U.S. occupation, which
to many here seems increasingly isolated.
The bombing of the Jordanian Embassy on Aug. 7 sent a chill
through Arab capitals still debating whether to engage the Governing
Council, which is struggling for credibility among its own people.
The devastation of the U.N. headquarters drove the World Bank,
International Monetary Fund and some humanitarian groups out of the
country. Judging by the reaction in the streets of Najaf tonight, few
believe the consequences of today's carnage will be any less far-
The attacks come at a time that U.S. officials are struggling
on multiple fronts in their efforts to bring order to a country beset
by crime, anger and frustration.
A simmering guerrilla war against U.S. forces in Sunni Muslim
areas marked by increasingly sophisticated attacks shows little
sign of abating. Last week, ethnic strife flared in northern Iraq
between Kurds and Turkomens, a dispute that U.S. forces seemed ill-
prepared to resolve. While still sporadic, attacks have increased
against British troops patrolling southern Iraq, a Shiite-dominated
region that until recent weeks was notable for its calm but which has
grown restive because of a continued lack of basic services.
In the latest incident there, a bomb was set off today near
the British base in Basra. There were no casualties.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company
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