Ending a homecoming tour through southern Iraq, a leading Shiite Muslim figure arrived in his native town of Najaf on Monday and was greeted by a crowd of several thousand people eager to know what, if any, political role he intends to play now that Saddam Hussein is gone.
After 23 years in exile in Iran, Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr Hakim told the crowd that the new Iraq should be both Islamic and democratic. Islam "achieves independence for us," he asserted, adding that the future of Iraq must be built around free elections.
Hakim's homecoming was a big event in Najaf, where people passed out tea and sticky sweets in the streets in honor of his return. When loudspeakers announced the arrival of the ayatollah's convoy, children ran forward to catch a glimpse of the man whose picture adorned posters all over town.
"We're here to see if Hakim is a man of politics or whether he is a man of religion," said Abu Muntazer, a fabric merchant in the street behind what Shiites consider one of their holiest shrines, where Hakim spoke Monday.
It is a question that interests the United States as well. Hakim's Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq has been hosted and funded by Iran during his years in exile. Hakim's brother, Abdelaziz, is representing the group in talks with other Iraqis about forming a U.S.-backed transitional government.
Hakim represents but one strain of Iraq's divided Shiite population. A more senior religious figure, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, remained in Iraq under Hussein's rule and has been largely silent about the U.S.-led war. Another Shiite figure, Muqtader Sadr, has expressed strong views about how politically active the religious leaders should be.
Hakim made Najaf his last stop on an exploratory trip through the Shiite-dominated south, starting Saturday in Basra, where he spoke to thousands of Iraqis at an open-air stadium.
Hakim's speeches along the way have been his first opportunity to speak freely outside of Iran, where the hard-line establishment, fearful of an expanding American presence on its doorstep, wants him to use his influence to push for an Islamic government in Iraq. However, in carefully worded statements over the last two days, Hakim has appealed for an elected government that respects Shiite values and leaders. Iraq is about 60% Shiite.
Such an approach is more in line with what many Iraqis in Najaf said they expected from him.
"We prefer him to be a religious man and advise those who hold authority," said a 22-year-old man who identified himself only as Ahmed. "We don't want an Iraq that is too much like Iran. We won't accept that."
But other Shiites said they fear that without religious representatives in government, they will be neglected or repressed as they were under Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime.
Those who back a political role for Hakim said they hope he can focus a transitional government's attention on their simple needs. "We need a man in politics to represent Najaf, to provide us with some services. We don't have water, electricity or gasoline," said Karim Bayati, 34, a shop clerk.
Hussein's repression of politically active Shiites denied religious leaders any voice in how Iraq should be run. Some said that if Hakim can combine his political and spiritual influence, he might begin correcting that legacy.
"There should be a role for Najaf in the country's politics," said seminary student Adel Najam Saadi. "Religion is politics here."
--- UNPUBLISHED NOTE ---
In stories after April 9, 2004, Shiite cleric Muqtader Sadr is correctly referred to as Muqtada Sadr.
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