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Hakim: Iraqi Shiite leader with bridges to Iran, US

world Updated: Aug 26, 2009 17:48 IST

Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of Iraq's largest Shiite party who died on Wednesday, will be remembered as a key ally of Iran who also built a dialogue with Tehran's arch-foe, the United States.

His death comes as his Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) movement faces a battle to retain its place at the centre of power in a general election planned for January, having already been routed in provincial polls seven months ago.

Labelled by some as Tehran's agent in Iraq due to his 20-year exile in Iran, he returned to his homeland in the wake of the US-led invasion in 2003, which toppled Saddam Hussein but set in motion a cataclysmic sectarian insurgency.

A notorious chain-smoker, whose habit ultimately led to his death from lung cancer, he always appeared in public in black robes and wearing the turban of a descendant of the Muslim Prophet Mohammed.

After Saddam's overthrow and 80 years of Sunni domination, he admitted in an interview with AFP in 2005 that he had given up hope of an Iraqi state led by Shiite clerics, and instead began to reach out to the country's vast mix of religious and ethnic groups, including Sunnis, Kurds, Turkmen and Christians.

"We are not seeking to establish a Shiite state in Iraq ... but to have a government that makes its priority to restore the people's opinion, to have elections and to have a kind of government that all should participate in," he said just days after the country's first post-invasion elections.

"The suitable state for Iraqis ... is the state of democracy," he said.

He carried on the political legacy of his brother, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim, who was assassinated by a car bomb in the Shiite shrine city of Najaf in August 2003, shortly after himself returning from Iranian exile.

Charismatic and a revered Islamic scholar, Baqr was the visionary for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the SIIC's former guise.

Hakim dutifully served his brother, as head in exile of the group's military wing, the Badr Brigades, and later as a member of the US-backed interim governing council.

SCIRI leaders returned to Iraq in May 2003 after a two-decade exile in Iran, where they waged a cross-border war against Saddam.

But Hakim, the son of a grand ayatollah, bristled at the charge that his organisation serves Iran.

"We are a very well-known Iraqi family. We are a family of Marjaya, the great reference of Shiites. We were a family from Najaf. When the circumstances got too hard for us to live in Iraq, we took Iran as a base.

"But all through this last period, we guarded our independence."

Presiding over the SCIRI's apparatus around southern and central Iraq, Hakim built up a popular following.

His high position made him enemies, and he was twice targeted in car bombings.

In a 2004 poll by the US-based International Republican Institute, he had a name-recognition of 80 percent among respondents, with more than 51 percent saying they wanted him in the next parliament.

Upon their return to Iraq in summer 2003, Hakim and his brother engaged in tacit cooperation with US forces and even announced their 10,000-strong Badr Brigades had been disarmed.

Hakim travelled to Washington in December 2006, where he met then president George W. Bush in the White House and thanked the American people for helping rid Iraq of dictatorship.