Monday, September 15, 2008

Profile: 'Abd al-'Aziz al-Hakim

Mid-level Iraqi Arab Shi‘i cleric and sayyid (1950-) born in the southern Iraqi city of al-Najaf who is sayyid, a descendant from the Prophet Muhammad and first Shi‘i Imam, ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib. He is a hujjat al-Islam (literally “proof of Islam”) and the current leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (hereafter SIIC), one of the two largest Iraqi Shi‘i political parties, a position he inherited upon the assassination of his brother, Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim (1940 or 1944-2003), who was assassinated by a massive car bomb in al-Najaf in August 2003. Abd al-Aziz’s father was Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Muhsin al-Hakim (1889-1970), the preeminent Shi‘i religious scholar and authority in Iraq from 1955 until his death in 1970. The al-Sadr family has deep roots in Iraq as one of the premier Arab Shi‘i scholarly families based in al-Najaf, where Imam ‘Ali’s shrine is located, though the family originally came from Jabal ‘Amil, a region in historical Syria which stretches across present-day southern Lebanon, northern Israel, and northern Palestine. Abd al-Aziz’s brother, Sayyid Muhammad Mahdi (1940?-1988), another activist, was assassinated in Khartoum, Sudan, most likely on the orders of Iraqi president and Iraqi Ba‘th Party chief Saddam Hussein. All three of the al-Hakim brothers studied religious subjects under both their father and then Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr (1935-1980), who was one of their father’s leading students and an activist scholar who was one of the intellectual founders of the Islamic Da‘wa Party (Hizb al-Da‘wa al-Islamiyya), Iraq’s other large Shi‘i political party.

Abd al-Aziz’s earliest social and political activism occurred in tandem with his father and older brothers, all of whom were actively opposed to the growing influence of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) among segments of Shi‘i youth during the 1950s and 1960s. Grand Ayatollah al-Hakim was an outspoken critic of communism and he passed a juridical opinion (fatwa) against membership in the ICP in February 1960. He was also instrumental in the formation and support of the Jama‘at al-‘Ulama (“Society of Religious Scholars”), a coalition of religious scholars (‘ulama) opposed to the growing influence of the ICP and other Iraqi secular political parties. Due to his age, Abd al-Aziz was probably not actively involved in the Jama‘at al-‘Ulama and the Islamic Da‘wa Party (Hizb al-Da‘wa Islamiyya), though his brothers were.

Following the Iraqi invasion of Iran in September 1980 and the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), Abd al-Aziz and his brother, Muhammad Baqir, left Iraq for Iran, along with thousands of other Iraqi Shi‘is, many of them political activists. The ruling Iraqi Ba‘th Party had begun to crack down severely against Shi‘i political activists and other regime opponents, fearing an Iranian-style revolution led by Iraq’s long-disenfranchised Shi‘i Arab majority. Ayatollah Baqir al-Sadr had been executed along with his sister, Amina bint Haydar al-Sadr (also known as Bint al-Huda), in April 1980.

In November 1982, Baqir al-Hakim announced the formation of the SIIC, then known as the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which initially was an umbrella organization that brought together officials from the various Iraqi exiled opposition movements, though it eventually became its own political party as other groups broke away over policy and ideological disputes. In 1982-83, the SIIC’s paramilitary wing, the Badr Organization, was founded under Abd al-Aziz’s leadership. Badr was made up of recruits from among the Iraqi exile community living in Iran as well as Iraqi Shi‘i prisoners-of-war, who received training and equipment from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps on the instructions of Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s revolutionary leader. On the eve of the U.S. and British-led invasion of Iraq, Badr reportedly fielded 10-15,000 fighters, with a core elite group of several thousand fighters.

Abd al-Aziz and Muhammad Baqir returned to Iraq on May 12, 2003, making their way to the southern Iraqi port city of Basra, where the ayatollah gave a rousing speech in front of an estimated 100,000 Iraqi supporters in the main soccer stadium, rejecting U.S. postwar domination of the country. The al-Hakims were soon joined by thousands of SIIC members and Badr fighters who flooded into southern Iraq. Following his brother’s assassination on August 29, 2003, Abd al-Aziz assumed control of the SIIC and has since maintained a close relationship with the U.S. government, the Iranian government, and the current Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, of the Islamic Da‘wa Party.

During Abd al-Aziz’s tenure as party chief, the SIIC achieved a key electoral victory in December 2005 as part of the United Iraqi Alliance, a loose coalition of primarily Shi‘i political parties, which, together with the Kurdish political list, dominates Iraqi politics today. In the past, he has supported attempts to create a decentralized federal system, creating an autonomous Shi‘i region in southern Iraq, a move which has been repeatedly blocked by Sunni Arab politicians and Tayyar al-Sadr (Sadr Movement), the socio-political faction led by Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr. Badr officials and fighters have infiltrated the Iraqi state security forces and relevant ministries, including the Ministry of Interior. They are blamed for summarily arresting, kidnapping, torturing, and murdering Sunni Arabs, often political rivals and random civilians off of the streets, particularly in mixed Sunni-Shi‘i neighborhoods, which they seek to cleanse of Sunni Arabs. The SIIC leadership denies involvement in such attacks, despite strong evidence to the contrary. Beginning in 2004 and reaching its apogee in the spring of 2008, Badr fighters, many of them while in their capacity as Iraqi state security, have engaged in running street battles with the Sadrists over political power, reportedly seeking to weaken them before municipal elections which are tentatively scheduled for 2009. Heavy fighting under the guise of the official Iraqi state, backed by the pro-SIIC prime minister Nuri al-Maliki and the U.S. military, took place between SIIC-dominated Iraqi security forces and Sadrist fighters in Basra during the spring and early summer of 2008.

Abd al-Aziz is aided by his two sons, Muhsin (1974-) and ‘Ammar (1972-), who both head various offices and departments within the SIIC. ‘Ammar is the secretary general of the al-Mihrab Martyr Foundation, an SIIC affiliate organization which has built mosques, Islamic centers, and schools throughout southern Iraq and Shi‘i areas of Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, and the second-in-command of the SIIC.

The SIIC publicly recognizes Grand Ayatollah Sayyid ‘Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s senior resident Shi‘i religious authority, as its official religious guide, though the degree to which they actually follow his religious edicts is unclear. SIIC and Badr fighters have notably ignored his calls for inter-communal harmony and a cessation of sectarian/inter-communal killings by both Sunnis and Shi‘is. Al-Hakim and other SIIC leaders have also publicly denied that they seek to establish a religious state in Iraq, though the SIIC does support a prominent role for Islamic morals and religious legal codes and institutions, particularly Shi‘i ones, in the present and future Iraqi state.

An encyclopedia article I authored, forthcoming in the Encyclopedia of Middle East Wars [ABC-CLIO].

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