BAGHDAD — Abdul Aziz al Hakim, the leader of one of Iraq's dominant Shiite Muslim political parties and a renowned cleric who resisted Saddam Hussein's regime for more than 20 years while in exile, died Wednesday in Tehran.
Hakim, 59, was one of the key figures who brought Shiite Muslims to power after Saddam's fall, using the muscle of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq — a party he helped build — to become a prevailing force in Iraqi politics.
His death leaves a vacancy at the top of his party as the country heads into its first national elections since 2005 and as the governing Shiite political alliance shows signs of breaking apart, with Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki separating from Hakim's bloc.
"Sayed al Hakim was a bigger brother and a strong support during the period of fighting the former regime and a fundamental cornerstone in the process of building the new Iraq," Maliki said. "His departure at this sensitive phase that we are going through is considered a great loss for Iraq."
Hakim hadn't been seen in public frequently since Iraq's provincial elections in January. His son, Ammar al Hakim, took on some of Hakim's responsibilities as Hakim suffered from lung cancer during the past two years.
He was a well-loved figure in Iraq because of his and his family's efforts to fight Saddam and publicly advocate for Shiite Muslims, a long-oppressed majority under Saddam.
His legacy is mixed, however, because of charges that the Islamic Supreme Council's armed wing, the Badr Organization, participated in the sectarian killings that rocked the country since Saddam's fall.
His reputation also suffered in some quarters because of several high profile visits he had with President George W. Bush, occasions that his rivals, mainly followers of radical cleric Moqtada al Sadr, cited to accuse him of caving to Americans.
Black funeral banners announcing Hakim's death went up in Najaf, a holy city for Shiite Muslims. A ceremony is expected to be held Thursday in Tehran, where he was being treated, followed by a funeral that could draw hundreds of thousands of people to Najaf on Friday.
His family is one of Iraq's preeminent Shiite lines. His father, Grand Ayatollah Muhsin al Hakim, led the Shiite world from 1955 to 1970.
Hakim's death was rare in his family, in that he died of natural causes. Six of his brothers were killed during Saddam's regime.
One brother, the Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Bakir al Hakim, the founder of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, was killed by a bomb in August 2003. He'd spent 23 years in exile before returning to Iraq after the American military ousted Saddam.
A prominent member of the Islamic Supreme Council said the party hadn't announced a successor, though a central committee met Wednesday to discuss choosing one.
"In his absence, his followers and others will become aware of the responsibility that he was carrying. They will be aware of the great care he took in order to look after his people and his establishment said Sheik Humam Hammoudi, an Islamic Supreme Council member and member of Iraq's parliament.
Hakim had a hand in founding the Islamic Supreme Council's armed wing, the Badr Organization, while the party was in exile in Iran during Saddam's dictatorship. He also founded two charitable organizations and sought care for Shiite refugees who suffered under Saddam's regime after the Gulf War.
Hakim also was a member of the Iraqi Governing Council, the first Iraqi body that began to lead the country after the American occupation began.
Hakim was "active in bringing down the dictatorship, and after liberation, he worked hard to build a well-organized establishment in order to forward the beliefs and goals of this party," Hammoudi said.
The Islamic Supreme Council is widely viewed as closely aligned with Iran. It is strongest in Iraq's southern provinces and has attempted to have the region designated as a semi-autonomous zone similar to the provinces Kurds govern in Iraq's north.
The Badr Organization was once a feared militia that was believed to have infiltrated several government ministries, but it has reinvented itself as an unarmed humanitarian group.
The party was Iraq's dominant group until this year, when Maliki's Dawa Party ascended on his efforts to be seen as a national leader unconcerned with sectarian divides.
Dawa and the Islamic Supreme Council are allies in parliament, but they have split for January's elections.
(Ashton reports for the Modesto Bee.)
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McClatchy Newspapers 2009