Monday, August 31, 2009

The Passing Of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim

August 26, 2009 saw the passing of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC). Hakim was a symbol of Iraqi politics immediately after the 2003-invasion. He was an opportunist and pragmatist who was willing to align himself with various groups to gain power. He was widely successful in the early years following the overthrow of Saddam, but then his star began to fade in 2007.

The SIIC has its roots in the Dawa Party and Tehran. In the 1950s, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Sadr and Ayatollah Mohsen al-Hakim created the Dawa Party rallying Shiites to the cause of an Islamic state. Hakim eventually left Dawa, and in the 1980s fled to Iran during the Iran-Iraq War with his two sons, Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. In 1982 Tehran formed the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq to counter the Dawa Party, and assert more influence over the Iraqi opposition. The Hakims in turn, pledged allegiance to Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iranian Revolution. In 1983 Iran created the Badr Brigade, which was an official arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Qods Force. It fought on the Iranian side in the Iran-Iraq War, and recruited amongst Iraqi prisoners of war. After the Gulf War, Badr moved into southern Iraq and tried to unsuccessfully take over the Shiite uprising. These origins were always a major problem for the SIIC as many Iraqis resented the Hakims fleeing to Iran, their role in the Iran-Iraq War and the 1991 uprisings, and their pro-Khomeini stance.

Despite their Iranian origins, the Hakims were always pragmatic opportunists who would ally with any group that would give them a better chance at gaining power in Iraq. Beginning in the late-1980s they started quiet relations with the United States. In 1992 they joined the Iraqi National Congress, and its leader Ahmad Chalabi, was able to garner Washington’s support for the SIIC as the major Shiite party they would work with after the invasion. They also worked closely with the ruling Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), to plan for a post-Saddam Iraq. The three had forged ties when they all fought on the Iranian side in the Iran-Iraq War.

When the 2003 invasion of Iraq occurred, the SIIC was able to sweep into power and assume a larger position than they had support. First, they took over a series of cities like Kut, Khanaqin, Baquba, Basra, Najaf, and Karbala because of the vacuum left from Saddam’s overthrow. They also sank early attempts to include internal Iraqi leaders in any new government put together by the U.S. They quickly aligned themselves with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as well to gain legitimacy and standing, and supported his call for elections to determine a new government and constitution, knowing that would benefit themselves since Iraq had a Shiite majority. Abdul al-Aziz al-Hakim ended up joining the Iraqi Governing Council, and assumed the leadership of the SIIC, when his brother Ayatollah Mohammed al-Hakim was killed in a car bombing in August 2003.

Beginning in 2005 Hakim and the SIIC were able to put together a string of ringing victories after the U.S. handed back sovereignty to Iraq. The SIIC was the driving force behind the United Iraqi Alliance in the 2005 elections, which came away with the most votes. It also joined with the Kurds to push through a new constitution, and together the SIIC, PUK, and KDP were the ruling coalitions behind the Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Nouri al-Maliki governments. The SIIC also took over the Interior Ministry under Jaafari, got their Badr Brigade integrated into the security forces, and set up death squads to begin the ethnic cleansing of Sunnis from Baghdad. In August 2005 they began promoting federalism, and a nine-province southern Shiite autonomous region. In 2006, the U.S. came to rely upon the SIIC to counter the Sadrists, who were their greatest rivals. The two had been having a long-running battle across southern Iraq. The SIIC was able to gain these victories because they were better organized than their rivals, the Sunnis and Sadrists boycotted the first two elections in 2005, and both Washington and Tehran supported them.

In 2007, the SIIC’s fortunes began to change. First, their call for an autonomous region proved to create more problems than good since many Shiites rejected the idea. The SIIC also controlled most of the southern provinces, and did a poor job governing and providing services. Third, the Hakim’s base was the middle class and merchants, who began to flee the country during the sectarian war. Fourth, the SIIC was never able to shake their image as tools of Tehran. To counter this the party tried to remake itself, dropping “Revolutionary” from their name becoming the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, claimed that they supported Ayatollah Sistani rather than Ayatollah Ali Khamanei in Iran, and said they had disbanded their militia the Badr Brigade, which they then called a social and political group. They also tried to provide social services to gain support amongst the poor, a move led by Abdul Hakim’s son, Ammar al-Hakim, who was being groomed as the successor to his father.

In 2008 and 2009 things got worse. Prime Minister Maliki began distancing himself from the SIIC by creating his own popular base with the Tribal Support Councils. Maliki also came out against federalism in both northern and southern Iraq, and called for a strong central government. In turn, the SIIC, KDP, and PUK talked about having a no confidence vote against the Prime Minister in December 2008, but they couldn’t decide upon a successor and were hoping that Maliki would trip up, and ruin his image. In the 2009 provincial elections, Maliki ran his own State of Law List against the SIIC, who was soundly beaten across the south and Baghdad. Despite these setbacks, Hakim tried to mend fences with Maliki by lobbying him to join a new version of the United Iraqi Alliance to run in the 2010 parliamentary balloting. This failed to materialize, as the Prime Minister wanted to lead the new list, something Hakim and the other parties refused to agree upon.

By the time of Hakim’s death, the SIIC was a shell of its former self. After the sweeping victories in 2005, the Supreme Council is now fading, and desperately trying to remake itself once again to return to power. They now talk about national unity, but they are remembered for their Iranian roots and pro-federalist stance. The death of Hakim could also lead to a power struggle within the organization. While Hakim’s son, Ammar, was the anointed successor, there are a number of possible rivals in the old guard like the head of the Badr Organization Hadi al-Ameri, Finance Minister Bayan Jabr, and Vice President Adel Abd al-Mahdi. The SIIC may be at a crossroads, lacking popular support and strong leadership with Hakim’s passing.


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