NAJAF, Iraq—For weeks, banners and graffiti have heralded the imminent return of Ayatollah Mohammed Baqr al Hakim, a prominent opponent of Saddam Hussein, to this holy city.
Hakim, unlike the leaders of other opposition groups, has still not returned to his homeland, instead remaining in Iran where he has lived in exile for 23 years and inspiring rumors about whether the Americans might be preventing his return.
The delay, it turns out, likely stems from Hakim's own strategizing about how to extend his influence over Iraq's Shiite majority. Two major Iranian newspapers reported Tuesday that he is considering stepping down as head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the largest Shiite opposition group, and returning to his hometown of Najaf as a spiritual leader.
A Hakim associate in Tehran, where SCIRI is based, confirmed the Iranian reports.
By relinquishing a public role in governing, Hakim, the son of a former top Iraqi Shiite, is positioning himself to become a major religious figure, a key to winning the hearts of the long oppressed Shiites for whom spiritual guidance is more important than any government.
At the same time, his organization is already a major political voice in Iraq. Hakim's younger brother, Abdul Aziz al Hakim, is poised to take over the organization and is in Baghdad working with other opposition leaders to help set up an interim government.
Hakim also has the support of a crucial Kurdish organization, which controls part of northern Iraq. "We prefer to work with SCIRI," said Heshiar Zibary, head of foreign relations for the Kurdistan Democratic Party, who was interviewed in Baghdad on Sunday. Zibary called SCIRI more "broad-minded" than Iraq's top Shiite authorities, who are based in Najaf.
Zibary added that he and others have pushed Bush administration officials to be more receptive to Hakim, whom they are lukewarm about because of his ties to Iran.
Last month in the holy Shiite city of Karbala, the younger Hakim alluded to his brother's planned departure from politics, saying a single Iraqi spiritual leader would soon emerge. Computer-generated black-and-white posters appearing on posts and walls around Najaf this week left little doubt about that leader's identity. The pictures show the elder Hakim with his hands raised in prayer and refer to him as "mujtahed," or learned religious man.
So far, Iraq's Shiite hierarchy, which includes relatives of Hakim who did not leave Iraq, isn't publicly objecting to the exiled SCIRI leader encroaching on their realm.
"As long as he serves Shiites, why not?" asked Mohammed Hossein al Hakim. "A united opinion is better than a scattered opinion. It gives stronger power to the Shiites."
His nonchalance is somewhat surprising, given the rift in the Hakim family caused by Mohammed Baqr Hakim's active opposition to Saddam, which led to the arrest of 110 family members and the execution of 43, according to a relative.
Other Najaf clerics also vying to be the voice for Shiites are not so blase about Hakim's return. Moqtada al Sadr, also the son of a former top Shiite cleric, dismisses Hakim's appeal.
"The people don't want him," Sadr said Friday.
Hakim controls a group of Iranian-trained guerilla fighters, known as the Badr Brigade, but Sadr said, "Ten thousand or even 30,000 is nothing compared to our followers."
Many Iraqi Shiites are nervous about Hakim's close ties to Iran and worry the leaders of that Islamic Republic might use Hakim to wield control over them. On Tuesday, seven trucks with Iranian license plates were parked at Hakim's headquarters in Najaf, part of a convoy that Hakim aides said brought medical supplies.
"It's normal that Iran would help us, but that doesn't mean they control us," said Mohammed Baqr al Mousawi, the political spokesman for Hakim in Najaf. "They have an interest in what happens here, and don't want to end up with a neighbor that has a Taliban-like government or an unbeliever in power."
Hakim's staunchest supporters say they expect concerns about Hakim will be laid to rest once he returns home. A throng of Hakim fans presses against the gates of his new headquarters each day, hoping to be the first to witness the most anticipated return of an exiled Shiite leader to his native land since the return of Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to Tehran in 1979.
"We really need him to come home soon," Sheikh Jawad al Mamouri, patriarch of a major Najaf family. "Once he does, all Najaf will welcome him and all his enemies will all melt away."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): HAKIM