Abdul Aziz al-Hakim: Shiite powerbroker who returned from exile to help reconstruct Iraq in the wake of Saddam's fall

The family of the powerful Iraqi politician Abdul Aziz al-Hakim paid an exceptionally heavy price for its decades of opposition to Saddam Hussein, for scores of his relatives were put to death during his dictatorship. No fewer than six of Hakim's brothers died at the hands of Saddam, while a seventh perished in one of the numerous car-bombings of recent years. He himself survived a bomb attack which killed 13 people but has now died of natural causes, succumbing to lung cancer apparently brought on by his chain-smoking.

His death provides yet another element of uncertainty in a country experiencing great instability as conflict continues in the wake of the 2003 invasion by the US, Britain and their allies. As an influential powerbroker he had sought to pull together many of the disparate shards of Shia opinion in the hope of fashioning an influential coalition for a tradition which for decades had been excluded from power. After initial successes his efforts had faltered in recent times. Yet he had significant success in maintaining relations with both the United States and Iran, a considerable feat given the animosity between the two countries. His career involved him in activities which took in the theological, the military, the paramilitary and the diplomatic.

He was born in 1950 in Najaf, one of Shia Islam's holiest cities, into a prominent family. His father, Grand Ayatollah Muhsen al-Hakim, was a highly revered spiritual figure and scholar, known as a "source of emulation," the latest in a long line of powerful clerics in the family. Following his father's death in 1970 Hakim studied theology and married a member of another influential Shia family. His family was also highly active in opposing the rule of Saddam Hussein, some of them taking part in an unsuccessful uprising in 1977.

At the outset of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980 many of the Hakim family fled to Iran, concluding that Saddam would move against a clan which he regarded as disloyal and dangerous. This proved correct as Saddam had many family members executed – Hakim has estimated that more than 60 of his relatives were killed.

At that time the Hakim clan's leading member was Abdul's more charismatic elder brother, Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim. With the support of Iran, they together helped found SCIRI, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Mohammed was its leader while Abdul was its deputy chairman. SCIRI also had a military wing, the Badr Brigade, which took part in the Iran-Iraq war with Abdul at its head. It was equipped and trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

The Iraqi victory in that conflict meant another decade of exile for the Hakims. But everything changed in the region in the wake of the attacks of 11 September 2001, followed as they were by the US-led invasion of Iraq. This posed a challenge for the Hakims, who were based in Iran and benefited from the support of its government. They could see that the arrival of the US as a major player in Iraq would alter its entire patterns of power.

Their reaction was to voice public opposition to the invasion, but to begin quietly building a relationship with the US without alienating their sponsors in Iran. This intrigued the Bush administration, though it brought criticism from various quarters. Some claimed they were too close to Tehran while others charged that they were too close to Washington. One of their rivals, Moqtada Sadr, the radical Shia cleric who had stayed in Iraq under Saddam, warned them to "beware that they are not sucked into America's plot to incite fighting among Shia." Iraq's Sunni minority, meanwhile, was highly suspicious of the family, alleging that it acted on Iran's behalf. "Al-Hakim wants Iran to rule Iraq," one Sunni leader claimed.

After two decades in exile Hakim nevertheless returned to Iraq following the collapse of Saddam's regime. Mohammed followed him a month later, looking set to be one of the major architects of post-Saddam Iraq, but he was killed by a huge car bomb in Najaf. His death seemed likely to produce a power vacuum since Abdul had largely lived in his shadow. But he took over as head of SICRI, proving to be an organiser and negotiator of substance. He went on to take part in the governing council set up by the US.

Under pressure from the United States, the paramilitary Badr group decommissioned some of its weaponry and became involved in security. There were, however, allegations that it had a more sinister side, running death squads to eliminate its enemies. Questioned about charges that Badr was involved in murder and torture, Hakim responded: "We say there is no evidence. Nothing of that happened." That exchange took place on a visit to Washington, during which George W. Bush made a point of saying he appreciated what he called Hakim's "strong position against the murder of innocent life."

If the Bush administration disapproved of the alleged death squads, and was intensely wary about Hakim's close Iranian links, it none the less acknowledged him as a power in the land and kept open lines open of contact with him.

Hakim put together a grouping of around 22 Shia factions which polled strongly in elections, though not everyone approved. A suicide bomber targeted his offices in Baghdad in 2004, but Hakim survived this reminder of how dangerous life in Iraq had become.

A rival, Nouri al-Maliki, became prime minister as a result of a compromise among the shifting strands of the Shia. Hakim decided to remain in the background, in line with his quiet and soft-spoken personality: his reputation, however, was as a figure who pulled many strings. As the years passed the rivalry between the two grew, and in elections earlier this year Maliki made gains while Hakim suffered losses. Their factions will be opponents in crucial elections due next year, with Shia support divided between SCIRI, now renamed the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, and those who support Maliki.

Hakim had reduced his role in active politics over the last two years as he battled against cancer. His illness was diagnosed in the US but he chose to undergo chemotherapy in Iran in what was viewed as a final display of his relations to the two countries. He was buried, following a funeral attended by many thousands, in Najaf in a crypt which had been built for his brother Mohammed and the others who died in the 2003 car bombing.

Hakim will be remembered as one of the architects of post-Saddam Iraq who helped organise Shia politics after decades of impotence while at the same time balancing his relations with Tehran and Washington. His chosen successor is to be his son Ammar, though his relative youth – he is under 40 – and inexperience have raised questions about whether he can hold together the emerging coalition which was largely his father's creation.

The Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, praised Hakim's "work in securing Iraq's freedom and the role he played in guiding the Iraqi people towards a democratic and prosperous future", while Washington applauded his "courage and fortitude." He is survived by his wife and children.

David McKittrick

Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, politician: born Najaf, Iraq 1950; married (two daughters, two sons); died Tehran 26 August 2009.

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