August 26, 2009

Iraq after the death of 'Abd al-'Aziz al-Hakim

'Abd al-'Aziz al-Hakim - healthy, and later with lung cancer

The death of 'Abd al-'Aziz al-Hakim has created a power vacuum among the Shi'a of Iraq. Since his return in 2003 from exile in Iran, al-Hakim had emerged as the political leader of the nation's Shi'a, the majority group in the country. Although Grand Ayatollah 'Ali al-Saystani (Sistani) remains the most influential Shi'a religious figure in Iraq, al-Hakim had eclipsed him in the last few years in the political sphere.

Al-Hakim was the leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) - known in the Saddam Husayn years as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. The name was changed in 2007 to remove the word "revolution" after the fall of the Ba'th Party. SCIRI was started by al-Hakim's older brother Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim. The younger al-Hakim was placed in charge of the SCIRI militia, the Iranian-trained and equipped Badr Brigade. The older al-Hakim was assassinated in Najaf, Iraq in 2003 - many (including me) believe that it was the work of radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his jaysh al-mahdi (Army of the Mahdi) militia.

In addition to his leadership of ISCI, he headed the National Iraqi Alliance (NIA), a coalition of Shi'a Islamist parties that are hoping to dominate the January 2010 parliamentary elections. Thus far, Iraqi Prime Minister (and Islamic Dawa' Party leader) Nuri al-Maliki has not joined the coalition - he wants assurances that if the coalition wins that he will continue as prime minister. He has tried to assemble a group of non-sectarian parties to challenge the NIA, but al-Hakim had garnered the support of the Kurds and was generally favored by the Americans.

It appeared to me that unless there was a drastic change in the situation, the NIA (under al-Hakim) would emerge as the clear winners in the election. The Shi'a are easily the majority, although some are still backing the incumbent al-Maliki. If you add the Kurds in with the NIA, the numbers are clearly on the side of the NIA.

The recent increase in violence might have been one of those changes that might have changed the political landscape. Al-Maliki stood to gain from the violence if he handled it correctly. Insisting that American troops remain outside the cities (as called for in the Status of Forces Agreement) instead of asking for their assistance is not the way to do that. He was forced to re-install the blast walls around key government buildings after several truck bomb attacks, a clear demonstration that his forces are incapable of rooting out the remnants of the Ba'th Party and al-Qa'idah in Iraq. People were looking to the NIA, to 'Abd al-'Aziz al-Hakim, as a viable alternative.

With the departure of al-Hakim, the ability of the NIA to challenge al-Maliki in January is in doubt. Al-Maliki was successful in making political gains in the recent municipal elections. He hopes to translate that victory into maintaining his prime minister-ship come January, but municipal elections are not as contested as the parliamentary elections.

Al-Hakim, despite his closeness with Iran - al-Maliki is as well - was probably the best choice to be Iraq's new prime minister. He was popular among the Shi'a, supported by the Kurds and liked by the Americans for his moderate ideas. He did worry the Sunnis, from which the remnants of al-Qa'idah in Iraq and the Ba'th Party come.

Given the passing of 'Abd al-'Aziz al-Hakim, we should prepare for having to put up with Nuri al-Maliki for another term.