BAGHDAD, Iraq—Just before he was killed by a huge car bomb Friday in the city of Najaf, Iraq, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al Hakim preached a sermon urging peace and unity in the effort to rebuild postwar Iraq.
The Shiite Muslim leader's death will make it much harder for Iraqis and U.S.-led coalition forces to do that.
Although he promoted an Islamic state in Iraq and had close ties with Iran, he was seen as a moderating figure in a country teeming with militants and angry youth.
Hakim had returned to Iraq in May after 23 years of exile in Iran. He was head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the parties in the Governing Council, the Iraqi coalition that the United States assembled to govern Iraq temporarily. His organization has not advocated violence against American troops. His brother, Abdel-Aziz al Hakim, is a member of the Governing Council.
Hakim was revered in Iraq as a unifying force. He spoke against a prolonged U.S. occupation.
"We will not accept governments being imposed on us and having formulas and structures imposed on us, as was the case in the past," he said during a sermon in Najaf after the American occupation began. "The age of tyranny and suppression has gone to hell and into the dustbin of history."
Hakim's death is a serious blow to U.S. forces, who considered him crucial to winning over Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority and a salve to simmering hostility among rival political and religious factions, both within Iraq's Shiite community and between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.
"The people who took part in this attack are interested in splitting Iraqis," said Ghaleb al Musawi, the editor of the newspaper for the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. "If the ayatollah had not come back to Iraq, people here would never be united, especially after the intrusion of coalition forces. During his whole life as a revolutionary—more than 40 years—he expected he would die as a martyr. He knew it could come at any moment."
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the bombing Friday afternoon in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad. Some Iraqi and U.S. officials said they thought loyalists to Saddam Hussein's mostly Sunni former regime, which brutally oppressed Shiites for decades, were behind the attack.
However, some U.S. intelligence officials and diplomats, who spoke Friday on condition of anonymity, said they thought rival Shiites, including more militant clerics such as Muqtada al Sadr, could have been behind the attack.
No matter who planted the bomb, America is likely to be blamed for Hakim's death, said one senior administration official, because the United States is responsible for keeping the peace in Iraq.
"This is terrorism, probably from Saddam's thugs. But America is ultimately responsible because it hasn't provided security at the borders and that allows any terrorist to come to our land and attack us," said Hassan Abdul Hadi, a 60-year-old Shiite who lives down the street from a holy shrine in Baghdad. "America will pay for this. We're just waiting for the right time."
Hakim fled to Iran in 1980 after his imprisonment and torture under Saddam and returned as a hero who preached cooperation between Shiites and Sunnis. The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq became the most influential Shiite movement and one of the first to openly cooperate with American-led forces after the war.
Paul Bremer, the top U.S. official in Iraq, called Hakim "a widely respected religious scholar, one of the pillars of the opposition to Saddam and a key participant in the building of democracy in Iraq."
"By murdering him, the terrorists are trying to strike a blow against the holy city of An Najaf, against harmony and democracy in Iraq and against freedom the world over. They will fail," Bremer said in a statement.
From the moment he returned from exile, Hakim tried to define himself as a moderate leader America could deal with and Shiites could trust to preserve their culture.
"We don't want a Taliban state and we don't want Islam on American terms, either," Hakim said in his first speech, delivered three hours after his return. That doesn't mean Iraq will be a sealed-off bastion of mosques and holy cities, he added. "We want to build a modern state that takes advantage of our vast resources" and in which "good" women will have a strong role, he said.
No women worked in his offices in Tehran, Najaf or Basra.
Hakim came from a prominent religious family and was the son of one of Shiite Islam's most revered figures, Agha Muhsin al Hakim. The Hakim family hated, and was hated by, Saddam and his loyalists. In 1980 Mohammed Hakim's brother, who became the religious leader of Iraq's Shiites after their father's death, and his sister were executed on Saddam's orders.
In 1983, Saddam arrested more than 100 members of Hakim's family and executed 18 of them, outraged at his cooperation with Iran against the Iraqi regime, according to the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. In 1988, another brother was assassinated in Sudan.
Hakim himself was imprisoned by Saddam in 1972 and 1977, when he allegedly was tortured and sentenced to life in prison without a trial. Both times Saddam was forced to free him, fearing a popular uprising among the Shiites, who make up two-thirds of the country's population, an indication of the power that Hakim and his family exerted in southern Iraq.
(Allam reported from Baghdad, Davis from Washington. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson and John Walcott contributed to this article.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20030829 USIRAQ Hakim
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Mohammed Baqir al Hakim