Abdul Aziz al Hakim, the leader of the largest and most powerful Shiite group in Iraq, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), has died aged 59. He was a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, and the scion of one of Iraq's oldest and most highly regarded clerical families. Exiled for 20 years in Iran under Saddam Hussein, al Hakim returned to Iraqi in 2003, assuming leadership of the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq - as the SIIC was then called - on the death of his brother, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al Hakim, in a car bomb.
Though priestly in dress and manner, al Hakim held a purely political role. He negotiated with the Clinton and Bush administrations in the 1990s, in the wake of the 1991 Gulf war, and though the two sides did not always concur, relations remained cordial. In 2002, he met the US vice president Dick Cheney and the secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld in Washington to discuss their intention to invade Iraq. The Hakims opposed the offensive and, despite assuring the Bush administration that they would not interfere, placed more than a thousand Badr fighters (the military wing of the SCIRI) in Iraqi Kurdistan, before submitting to the Pentagon's veto.
During his exile in Qom, Iran, al Hakim embodied resistance and hope for the many Shiites who suffered brutal repression under Saddam. Latterly, his close connection to Iran and his call for Shiite autonomy in the south of Iraq had been regarded increasingly with suspicion. He was seen by many as being Tehran's man in Iraqi politics and a symbol of sectarian divisions. His death came days after the SIIC and followers of the anti-American cleric Muqtada al Sadr agreed to form a new political alliance to contest parliamentary elections due to be held in January 2010.
His wish, expressed in a 2004 New Yorker article, that "eventually we'd like to see an Iraq where even policemen don't carry guns on the street", would seem still some way off. Since escaping a rocket blast at the mosque where he attended the prayer in December 2003, al Hakim had stayed out of public sight, keeping to the house in Baghdad that was both his home and headquarters: it had previously been occupied by Saddam's most visible emissary, Tariq Aziz.
Abdul Aziz al Hakim was born in 1950. He died on August 26. He is survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters. * The National