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He’s close to the U.S. and Iran

Times Staff Writer

When a Shiite religious leader’s phalanx was waved through a security cordon and into the Imam Hussein shrine in Karbala on Monday night, a crowd of rival militiamen grew incensed, sparking fighting that claimed the lives of at least 50 people and left parts of the holy city smoldering.

The man at the center of it was a soft-spoken 36-year-old cleric who has emerged this summer as the likely next head of the party that is the United States’ most powerful political ally in Iraq.

Ammar Hakim is far from the secular, Western-educated men whom U.S. policymakers hoped would govern this land once Saddam Hussein was toppled. He wears the black turban of those who claim to be descended from the prophet Muhammad and was educated in the Shiite seminaries of Iran.

In the last few months, Hakim has taken the helm of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, stepping in for his father, Abdelaziz Hakim, while he is being treated for lung cancer.

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The younger Hakim’s rise comes at a crucial time for the party. The supreme council commands one of the two largest Shiite Muslim groups in Iraq’s parliament but has been losing influence on the streets to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada Sadr, who controls the other bloc. If Hakim is able to counter Sadr, it could boost the Bush administration’s hopes of maintaining Iraqi support for a continued U.S. presence here.

The increasingly violent feud pits the well trained men of the supreme council’s Badr Organization against Sadr’s seemingly less disciplined, but larger, Mahdi Army. At stake are political influence and control of the vast oil wealth in the overwhelmingly Shiite south.

This week’s battle in Karbala shut down a major religious pilgrimage and sparked attacks against supreme council offices across Baghdad. Shiite leaders, who rarely accuse each other publicly, blamed the violence on remnants of Hussein’s regime.

Ammar Hakim and Sadr are close in age, and both are the charismatic scions of clerical families that have long vied for leadership of Iraq’s Shiite majority. But Hakim, a polished orator with a classical Arabic diction, is a sharp contrast to the gruff Sadr, who speaks in the colloquial dialect of the Iraqi poor. Hakim plays down the rivalry, noting that his mother is from the Sadr clan.

Hakim was groomed from an early age for a leadership role. The family home in Najaf was a frequent hide-out for men battling the Iraqi regime. In a recent interview with The Times, he said that from age 4, it was his job to pass food in secret to the fugitives. By the time he was 7, he was acting as a lookout to help his father elude Hussein’s henchmen.

“I was able to spot the security men even if they were dressed in civilian clothing,” he said, breaking into one of many smiles. His family fled to Iran in 1979 to escape persecution, and by age 9, Hakim was addressing thousands of Shiite faithful at mosques and religious festivals there.

Many here and in Washington are suspicious of Hakim’s close ties to Iran, where he has spent more than half his life. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard trained, equipped and at one point led the Badr Organization, which fought alongside Iran during the 1980s war against Iraq.

By contrast, Sadr is an Iraqi nationalist who routinely denounces both U.S. and Iranian influence, although he, too, has accepted assistance from Iran and spends considerable time there.

During constitutional negotiations after Hussein was ousted, some supreme council members advocated giving senior Shiite clerics, or ayatollahs, veto power over legislation. Hakim argued for changing the country’s name to the Islamic Republic of Iraq, a proposal he now says was intended to recognize that most Iraqis are Muslim, not to exclude those who are not.

Hakim has alienated Sunni Arabs by pushing for greater regional autonomy and, until recently, resisting proposals to allow members of Hussein’s ousted Baathist regime to take jobs in the government and military.

His tendency to travel in flashy convoys studded with gunmen have led some to dub him “Uday” Hakim, after Hussein’s corrupt and violent son.

In February, U.S. troops detained him for several hours over questions about his passport as he returned from Iran in a heavily armed convoy. He complained at the time of being blindfolded and stripped to his underwear but accepted an apology from then-U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.

Hakim emphasized his independence from Tehran in the interview, which took place in a marble hall furnished with gilt-trimmed sofas at his party’s heavily guarded headquarters in Baghdad.

“We are not agents of Iran,” he said. He pointed out that it was his father who had encouraged Iran to open a dialogue with the United States about Iraq, and he said it was in Iraq’s interests to maintain good relations with both countries.

He cautioned against a sudden drawdown of U.S. forces, saying it would be dangerous for Iraq. He said he supported a U.S.-sponsored bill to regulate the distribution of Iraq’s massive oil wealth. And he expressed willingness to compromise with Sunni Arab politicians.

At a time of mounting frustration with Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shiite with the rival Islamic Dawa Party, Hakim distanced himself from moves to replace the Iraqi leader.

“The problems of Iraq cannot be reduced to one person . . . especially as there are no other alternatives,” he said, a view shared by U.S. diplomats. “We have to put up with each other.” The two groups are part of a larger ruling bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance.

But analysts say it is too soon to say whether Hakim intends to chart a course similar to his more reticent father’s, or whether he could steer the party in a new direction.

“Getting into power and consolidating it is a long process in these systems,” said Juan Cole, an expert on Shiite politics at the University of Michigan. “So it is a little unlikely that he would take early initiatives that differed starkly from his father’s direction until he felt like he had his own power basis.”

The elder Hakim’s direction is one that U.S. officials describe as a voice of moderation in Iraq, despite the party’s strong Islamist values and close ties to Tehran. U.S. officials regard the Badr Organization, which has been accused of running death squads targeting Sunnis, as more restrained than the Mahdi Army, also blamed for sectarian killings. And Badr has avoided open confrontations with U.S. forces, unlike Sadr, who has led two uprisings against American troops.

The tacit alliance has shielded Badr fighters from U.S. raids. But with tension mounting between the U.S. and Iran, it is increasingly difficult for Hakim’s party to juggle the relationships with its two key benefactors.

There are signs that the supreme council is seeking other ways to counter Sadr’s influence. Its leaders have adopted a nationalist tone closer to Sadr’s, saying they will be guided by Iraq’s most senior Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, rather than Iran’s spiritual mentor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The Hakim family returned to Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Only a few months later, a massive car bomb outside the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf killed Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr Hakim, who had founded the supreme council in 1982 as a political home for Iraqi exiles in Iran.

The day his uncle was killed, Hakim said, he had prayed behind him at the shrine.

“He went to ride in his car, but I stayed behind to salute the people as he requested,” he said. “I wish he had never made that request. I wish I had left with him. He became the 63rd martyr of my family.”

Hakim says he has survived 13 assassination attempts, the most recent in April, when gunmen attacked his convoy as he drove through Baghdad on his way back from Najaf.

“Some people believe, when I have so many cars and guards, it is a kind of luxury,” he said, seemingly bemused.

Within Iraq’s clerical families, leadership is traditionally passed from father to son, but Hakim’s ascent to the head of the supreme council is not assured. Talk of corruption has shadowed him, fueling disenchantment among some in Najaf, the party’s stronghold.

“His influence doesn’t go beyond the women who admire his looks,” said Ali Hasnawi, a restaurant owner there.

An investigation by Iraq’s Commission on Public Integrity found no evidence of wrongdoing by Hakim.

“I always find myself in a position where I have to explain myself,” Hakim said. “In our society . . . we only praise the dead.”

There are others in the party with more experience, such as Adel Abdul Mehdi, who is the supreme council’s chief negotiator and a possible candidate for prime minister.

Asked whether he harbors prime ministerial ambitions, Hakim smiled again and shook his head.

“No,” he said, adding that he looked forward to his father’s return to work. “I don’t feel very happy and relaxed in the position that I am now.”

His confident demeanor, however, belies those words. A dynamic campaigner, Hakim heads the party’s multimillion-dollar Shahid Mihrab foundation, which supports religious and welfare programs across Iraq.

Like his father, who had tried to make Abdul Mehdi prime minister, he may prefer the role of kingmaker. But it remains to be seen whether he can compete against Sadr and other Shiite leaders.

“The battle, I think, for Ammar is not taking over [the party], the battle is to shine at the center stage of Iraqi politics,” said Vali Nasr at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey.

“He can very easily be anointed. . . . Whether he is a figurehead or an effective head remains to be seen.”

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alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

Special correspondent Saad Fakhrildeen in Najaf contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Ammar Hakim

Scion of one of Iraq’s most prominent Shiite clerical families, Hakim, 36, has emerged as the likely next head of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the faction with the closest ties to the United States.

The party also has close ties to Iran, where it was founded in 1982 by Hakim’s uncle. The family had fled there in 1979 to escape persecution under Saddam Hussein. The supreme council is one of the two largest blocs in parliament.

The council’s armed wing, the Badr Organization, is locked in an increasingly violent rivalry with the Mahdi Army, which is loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr.

Source: Times reporting


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