Ayatollah Mohammad Bakr al-Hakim

Shia cleric who favoured an Islamic regime for Iraq
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The Independent Online

Mohammad Bakr al-Hakim, cleric and scholar: born Najaf, Iraq 1 July 1939; married Azzat Mohey-eldine al-Mghmaghanie (two sons, five daughters); died Najaf 29 August 2003.

There was an air of calm and grandeur surrounding Ayatollah Mohammad Bakr al-Hakim when I first met him in exile in Iran 17 years ago. In his quiet but confident voice, he was very critical of the West's policy in general and American policy in particular, because of their support at that time of Saddam Hussein.

The Iraqi dictator and his bloody Baathist regime had imprisoned and tortured the respected Shia leader several times in the 1970s, forcing him to flee Iraq in 1980 into 23 years of exile, first in Syria and Lebanon and then Iran, where he remained until his return last May, following the fall of Saddam's regime, to a massive popular welcome. Although critical of the Americans, Hakim was ready to work with them - a decision that earned him the hostility of more radical Shia factions.

In the past, there had been seven attempts on his life, five of which were certain to have been by Baath regime hitmen. He was assassinated yesterday by a massive car bomb after the Friday prayers outside the mosque of Imam Ali - the cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Mohamed and the holiest of Shia saints.

His death is the second major blow to the hopes of coalition forces for moderate and open-minded leaders of the Shia to promote peace and unity. In early April, another exiled Shia leader was killed at the same mosque: Abdul Majid al-Khoei, just returned from exile in London.

Mohammad Bakr al-Hakim was born in the holy city of Najaf in 1939, the fourth child of the second wife of Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Muhsin al-Hakim, the spiritual leader of Shia Muslims until his death in 1970. His family tree leads to Imam al-Hussein, grandson of the prophet Mohamed and founder of the Shia faith.

Hakim studied at several centres of Shia theology in Najaf, many headed by his father, uncles and elder brothers. Two of his mentors, whom he always acknowledged, were Yousuf al-Hakim, who was arrested by Saddam, and Ayatollah Bakr al-Sadr, assassinated by Saddam.

A great scholar and author of 33 books on Islamic philosophy, theology, politics, history and logic, Hakim enjoyed political and philosophical debate. He had an academic and open-minded approach and was tolerant of other points of view. He taught Theology and Koranic Research at Baghdad College of Religious Essence from 1965 until the Baath closed it down, following the successful military coup in 1969 which established a secular, one-party dictatorship.

Hakim's first fall-out with the regime came in 1976 when he was arrested for "inciting a rebellion" and for his membership of the banned Aldawa Islamic party. In the same year the regime banned the annual pilgrimage by Shia to the holy city of Najaf (a ban that remained in place until April this year). He was released six months later after Grand Ayatollah al-Khoei protested to the President of Iraq, Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr.

Following endless harassment, prison, torture and attempts on his life, Hakim fled to Syria, then Lebanon, before settling in Iran. There in 1982 he founded the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), an umbrella group for 70 different Islamic movements across the region.

SCIRI is considered to be one the main Shia Muslim groups jockeying for power in post-war Iraq. The group had, until recently, been based in Iran and owed much to the conservative clerics ruling Iran who have funded the organisation for 20 years. Many Iraqis loathed SCIRI especially during the eight-year war that Saddam started against Iraq in 1980. At the time in Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini was setting up a Shia Islamic state.

Hakim spent more than two decades in exile. From Iran, he not only headed SCIRI but also controlled the group's armed wing, the Badr Brigade. His militias waged a low-level war of ambushes, sabotage, and assassinations against the regime.

After President George Bush Snr's call to the Iraqi people to overthrow Saddam following his eviction from Kuwait in 1991, many of Hakim's supporters crossed to join the intifada. They were helped by Iranian revolutionary guards who scared the Americans into allowing Saddam's armies to move unopposed to quell the uprising, and slaughter the Shia in the South. Scores of Hakim family members were arrested in March 1991, but a few members who were already in prison were released, in a move that perplexed historians. Saddam sent a message to Iran asking Hakim to return or face his family's execution, and carried out the threat when Hakim remained defiant.

Although SCIRI boycotted the first conference to be organised by the Americans in Iraq at the end of April, Hakim, upon returning to Iraq from exile, advised his followers to give the Americans more time. Many Shia saw Hakim as the best hope of reversing the suppression of their political aspirations throughout Saddam's period in power. Others, not wishing for an Iranian-style religious rule, were wary of his Iranian connections. He was able to calm clan and tribal leaders and persuade them to join a moderate debate.

But, despite its name and Iranian connections, SCIRI said it was not pushing for an Iranian-style Islamist government in Iraq. In a pragmatic move, Hakim said the new government he supported would be a modern Islamic regime "to go along with today's modern world, and it will be able to bring Iraq to its natural place in the Arab and Islamic word." He made concessions to American sensitivities, by claiming that the new Iraq would represent Christians and all the other minorities as well as Muslims. "We don't want extremist Islam, but an Islam of independence, justice and freedom."

Adel Darwish