Sometimes his voice broke in an almost childish wail. No mention of Hussein and his brother Abbas - killed at the Battle of Karbala in 620 - was unaccompanied by tears. "Yah Hussein," cried the short, grey-bearded man with the small eyes, in the south-east corner of Hussein's own golden-domed shrine. "He died for his principles and his family suffered."
And of course, we all remembered, as we were supposed to remember, that Ayatollah Sayyed Mohammad Bakr al-Hakim had lost up to 50 members of his family to Saddam's butchery. Indeed, Saddam had the habit of executing one of the Ayatollah's brothers every year, each time he declined to return to Iraq from his exile in Iran.
Then there was the hard-soft sell on Iraq's new occupiers. Iraq must be free and independent, the Ayatollah announced; no problems for the Anglo-American occupiers there. But wait for it. "The Americans and the British insisted they were coalition, not occupiers, but now we learn from the United Nations that they are officially occupiers," the cleric remarked with scorn. "Today, the American and British soldiers here have the right to kill anybody without any reason if they so much as feel that one of our citizens is threatening them. Why? Why is there no end to this war?"
So was the good cleric, after years of fraternal friendship with the Iranian clerics of Qum, calling for a resistance war? True, he mentioned one of the great Karbala rebels who fought the British occupation in the 1920s, Mohamed Taqi Shirazi. But then came the promises of a new Iraq in which the law courts and judiciary must be separate from the executive, in which women must have a prominent social role, in which women - this did not go down so well with the men - must be allowed to join "the new Iraqi army".
Ah, to be a man for all seasons. Ayatollah Hakim, it seems, may frighten the State Department and the Pentagon, but he sounded like a man who wanted it both ways; a resistance hero if Iraq's anarchy continued but a constitutional political leader providing enough power was handed to the Shia Muslims of Iraq - and especially to Ayatollah Hakim himself - if the Anglo-American "democracy" in Iraq eventually took off. The people voted with their feet.
Nor could anyone blame them. In the furnace-like midday heat, the Ayatollah's supporters began to drift away. "I'm almost at the end," Hakim pleaded. We were all relieved. Even the pigeons cowered from the bleached white sun behind the golden cupola. From time to time, the coffins come and go, carpet-covered wooden boxes borne through the crowd for blessing in the shrine in the courtyard at Karbala.
An Iraqi walked over to me. "Don't think that this man represents us," he said. Even at the start, his supporters filled only half the courtyard. America may suspect that Hakim wants to set up an Islamic Republic in Iraq, but this was no Khomeini. Could it be, one couldn't help wondering, if those rumours from Iran that Hakim had, in exile, denounced some of his own people to the Iranian security police, that some had been tortured, even executed, have had their effect? There was much pleasing talk of unity, no doubt for Western as well as Iraqi ears. Iraq belonged to all its people, Muslims, Kurds, Christians. Karbala belonged to all Muslims - Sunni as well as Shia - just as Mecca belonged to all Muslims. Sometimes, the whole speech - Hakim's first in the city since he returned from Iran - became a kind of dialogue between cleric and congregation, something the Christian church has not seen since the Middle Ages.
"Saddam was the leader, and where is he now?" one of the pious shouted. "Yes, where is the Saddam whom you fought, a man so shameless in defeat." Another voice: "So where is he?" Hakim: "All criminals go to hell, but all you people are free; God will take care of you." If Saddam had indeed gone to hell, of course, the Ayatollah was in no mood to give any credit for this to the M1A1 Abrams tank. It was the resistance of the people of Karbala, the Shias of the South, who had suffered and resisted and fought and died, which had brought down Saddam Hussein. The crowds loved it, though whether they were convinced was another matter.
Hakim's best line was a question. "If Iraqis could arrange a march of five million people to Najaf last month without a single incident of violence, why can they not be trusted to form a government at once?" But then came the self-pitying voice once more. Hakim had returned from exile "to Holy Karbala, as I promised you". When his family suffered under Saddam, he thought of the suffering of the families of Hussein and Abbas.
And there it was again. Ayatollah Mohammad Bakr al-Hakim, mirror image of the martyrs of Karbala and potential democrat. I wonder what Iraq's new masters at the Pentagon make of it all.
- More about: