Iraqi leaders hailed the late Shiite and pro-Iranian politician Abdel Aziz al Hakim today as "a devoted fighter" and "leader of the fight" against the tyrannical reign of Saddam Hussein. Mr al Hakim, whose body arrived in Baghdad by plane from Iran, where he died in hospital of lung cancer two days ago, was carried down the aircraft's steps by six pallbearers dressed in ceremonial uniform for a service at Baghdad airport.
The mourners were led by his son, Ammar, dressed in black robes and a black turban and who is seen likely to take over his father's duties as leader of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), Iraq's largest Shiite political party. President Jalal Talabani, prime minister Nuri al-Maliki and other political leaders were joined at the ceremony by tribal chiefs, the US ambassador Christopher Hill and his British counterpart Christopher Prentice.
"He was a leader, a devoted fighter of Iraq," said Mr Talabani, who was first to address the ceremony. "We are confident that the void left in his family and in the Supreme Council will be filled by the men of his family, such as (his son) Ammar al Hakim." Al Hakim, 60, and a former chain-smoker who died after a 28-month battle against the cancer on Wednesday, was one of the principal leaders in exile of the opposition to Saddam, who mounted a devastating 1980-88 war against Iran.
"He was a symbol and a leader of the fight against the dictator's regime," Mr Maliki told the crowd. In 1982, al Hakim helped to establish an opposition movement in exile in Iran to battle Saddam's regime and only returned to Iraq following the US-led invasion of 2003. The SIIC swept Shiite areas in the first provincial elections after the invasion, but in new elections this January the party suffered major losses.
Although al Hakim was seen as the Iraqi politician with the closest ties to Iran he also managed to build a rapport with Tehran's arch-foe the United States and even met then president George W Bush at the White House in 2006. Friday's ceremony at the airport replaced earlier plans to have an official service in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, the seat of the Iraqi government and the US embassy.