Eldest son ready to step up as leader

Ammar al Hakim says he is ready to replace his father, Abdel Aziz al Hakim, in leading the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.

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Ammar al Hakim, the elder son of Iraqi Shiite leader Abdel Aziz al Hakim, who died yesterday aged 60 after a long battle with lung cancer, says he is ready to replace his father in leading the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI). "It will meet and decide on this. I have no intention of nominating myself, but if I am asked to, then I will accept the council's decision," he told Agence France-Presse.

Party insiders said Ammar will become the public face of the ISCI, Iraq's largest Shiite political party, because of the influence of his family name, but that some senior figures in the party oppose a dynastic succession. A power struggle or split cannot be ruled out, they said. "After Abdul Aziz's death there will be problems within the Supreme Council. There are different factions who want power and not everyone is supportive of Ammar al Hakim," Sayyed Mohammad Maksafi, chairman of the economic commission for Basra provincial council and a member of the ISCI, said. "Abdul Aziz was a strong leader for the party but with him gone it will be weaker. There will be infighting. It's something we are concerned about."

Ammar al Hakim, in a statement read on the party's al Forat television channel yesterday, said his father, "who spent decades in jihad and struggle, has joined the ranks of the martyrs". "The passing away of [Abdel] Hakim is a big loss to the Iraqi people and all those who love Iraq," Ammar al Hakim said. "He was a leader and had special characteristics which made him a favourite of the people."

Karim Abdul Khalif, a 56-year-old butcher from the Karrada neighbourhood of Baghdad, an area under the control of the ISCI, offered a different view. "Abdul Aziz al Hakim made a mess of Iraq. He followed a sectarian agenda. He was about dividing the country, not uniting it," he said. "His loyalty was not to Iraq but to Iran and he pushed Iranian interests. That is why most Iraqis didn't like him."

The son of Grand Ayatollah Muhsin al Hakim, one of the most influential clerics of his era, Abdel Aziz al Hakim, who was born in Najaf, and his brothers became active in political opposition to Saddam's Baath Party. He was jailed three times. He and most of the family fled to Iran in 1980 following a crackdown by Saddam on the Shiite opposition. In Iran, he helped found the ISCI in 1982 and headed its military wing, the Badr Organisation. Seven of his brothers have been killed, six on the orders of Saddam.

Abdel al Hakim returned to Iraq after the US-led invasion in 2003. When his brother Mohammed Baqir al Hakim was killed after a bomb exploded outside the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf on August 29, 2003, Abdel al Hakim took over leadership of the ISCI. He was a member of the United States-appointed Iraqi Governing Council and served as its president. "Abdul Aziz al Hakim played a huge role in Iraqi politics and was a driving force between creating a united Shiite front that has dominated national politics since the Americans invaded," Hussein al Zubaidi, a political analyst from Kut, said.

"He was an extremely powerful Shiite leader and in 2004 became very popular among Shiites. He built up southern Iraq to be strong, something that was impossible before." In the 2005 parliament election, he forged a grand alliance of Shiite parties - backed by Iran's foremost Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani. The coalition allied with the Kurds to form a government. "We have known Hakim for his knowledge, patience and struggle against the regime of dictatorship," the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, said yesterday in a statement.

"Hakim, may his soul rest in peace, was a brother and strong supporter during the struggle against the former regime and a cornerstone in the process of building a new Iraq. His passing at this critical stage ... is a great loss for Iraq." In a 2006 meeting with then US president George W Bush, al Hakim said: "We have gone a long way to establish a democratic and pluralistic society in Iraq ... We ... [believe in] a government that deals and will deal with all the sources of terrorism regardless where they come from."

"Hakim was a towering figure on the Iraqi political scene. He was an experienced politician and was seen by many Shiites as serving their interests well," said Hussein al Shammri, an Iraqi journalist. "But he was never a figure for the whole of Iraq. He never had any popularity among Sunnis, or outside of Iraq in the Arab world." Al Hakim was diagnosed with lung cancer in May 2007 after tests at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. He returned to Iran to receive chemotherapy and largely withdrew from the public eye.

The Iranian ISNA news agency said mourners will hold a funeral procession today at 9am from Vali Asr Square in central Tehran to the Iraqi Embassy. It did not say when the body would be transferred to Najaf for burial. Al Hakim's death comes two days after his party joined with followers of anti-US cleric Muqtada al Sadr to form a new political alliance, which did not include the Da'wa Party of Mr al Maliki, to contest January parliamentary elections.

Al Hakim was married and the father of two girls and another son in addition to Ammar. * The National