Izzedin Salim

Politically skilful Shia leader recently appointed president of the Iraqi Governing Council

In February 2003, less than one month before the American-led invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein, Iraqi opposition groups held their last conference in exile, in Salaheddin in self-ruled Iraqi Kurdistan, under the care of the Americans.

Abdel-Zahra Othman (Izzedin Salim), politician, writer, teacher and political activist: born Howeir, Iraq 1944; married (two sons, three daughters); died Baghdad 17 May 2004.

In February 2003, less than one month before the American-led invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein, Iraqi opposition groups held their last conference in exile, in Salaheddin in self-ruled Iraqi Kurdistan, under the care of the Americans.

At the last minute, Abdel-Zahra Othman, known by his nom de guerre Izzedin Salim ("The Pride of Faith Protected"), changed his mind about staying aloof from America and European-based anti-Saddam groups and decided to attend the conference as representative of Hizbulul-Dawa ("The Islamic Call Party"). The Dawa party is a Shia group established in the 1960s by Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, who was killed - like many other Shia leading figures - by Saddam's ruthless Mukhbarat intelligence agents.

Based then in Iran - like most exiled Shia leaders - Salim attended the conference as part of a united Shia front under the umbrella organisation of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), led by Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, himself assassinated last summer in Najaf. It was a pragmatic move that marked the political skill of both men in the troubled, often treacherous, waters of Iraqi politics.

While SCIRI commanded some 15,000 Iranian-backed fighters across the borders - mostly prisoners of wars from the Iran-Iraq war, encouraged by Iran to join al-Hakim's group - Salim had hundreds of fighters from the military wing of the Dawa party in southern Iraq harrassing Saddam's troops and turning the countryside around Basra into a no-go area for most of the time. Both Hakim and Salim enjoyed US backing and the meeting established the basis of the Iraqi Governing Council, to which Salim was elected last July. On 1 May, he became its president - a rotating position under Iraq's current basic law - until he was assassinated alongside his deputy Talib Qasim Hajjaj by a car bomb yesterday.

Born in Howeir, near Basra, in 1944 to a religious Shia family of teachers and Islamic scholars, Abdel-Zahra Othman went to schools in Basra as well as attending religious schools and Hawza (Islamic seminars) and graduated from Basra university in 1967 with a BA in Education. While at university he joined the ranks of the Dawa party led by Imam el-Sadr and became a political activist, spreading Dawa's political Islamic call and opposing Baathist rule. He moved swiftly through the ranks of the party and became its leader less than 15 years later, during a meeting in exile in southern Iran, by which time he had taken the name Izzadine Salim.

Unlike the Islamic Action Organisation (IAO), which had been engaged since the early 1970s in a direct, violent struggle against the secular Baathist dictatorship, the Dawa party remained non-violent until the late 1970s. However they did not escape the wrath and "liquidations" of the Baathist secret terror machine.

Salim lost 17 members of his family, including his father-in-law, Abdel-Kareem el-Radinee. He fled Iraq to neighbouring Kuwait in 1975, and was helped by sympathetic Kuwaitis, Shia and Sunni alike, to avoided the several Baathist attempts on his life. Many Baathist killers were operating in Kuwait with relative ease, and assassinated several Iraqi exiles. By early 1978, Salim had moved to Syria - though Baathist, it was ruled by Saddam's arch-enemy Hafez el-Assad. Following the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, Salim moved to Tehran, and spent 20 years moving between Syria and Iran. In the 1980s Dawa, alongside IAO, increased its military activities in southern Iraq and played a major role in the 1991 uprising that started in Basra and spread throughout the south following the call of the US President George Bush senior for the Iraqis to overthrow Saddam. Iraqi Republican Guards poured south through French and American check-points, and the uprising was ruthlessly put down. Saddam exacted one of the bloodiest revenges of his regime on families whose sons were active in the two organisations.

Mass graves discovered in the south last year testified to the horror. This explained Salim's, and Dawa's, cautious dealings with the Americans - Salim rarely trusted exiled groups based in America or the West - and his hesitation to join them until just a few weeks before the 2003 invasion, when he became certain that President Bush junior was serious about removing Saddam.

A writer and philosopher, Salim used his years in exile to write over 10 books about Islam on education, the influence of Islamic culture in politics and Iraqi politics. He edited several newspapers and magazines, all with strong Islamic leanings.

Despite his belief in the religious guidance of political movements, he became an independent member of the governing council. He commanded a great deal of support in the Basra area and among the Shia in general. He was also recruited by the US-backed Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress as one of their main allies. He went on record as saying that he didn't object to the idea of a secular state giving people and religious groups freedom to practice.

Salim had been expected to lead the Iraqi delegation to the Arab summit due to take place in Tunis in a few weeks' time.

Adel Darwish

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