x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Al Hakim's death hits hopes of Shiite unity

The repercussions of Sayed Abdel Aziz al Hakim's death and exit from the political stage will be significant.

The death of Sayed Abdel Aziz al Hakim, the powerful leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI) and of one of his country's most distinguished Shiite dynasties, was no surprise, since the senior cleric and politician had been suffering from lung cancer for several years. The repercussions of his exit from the political stage are significant.

The timing of his death is worth noting. Al Hakim died days after the announcement of an electoral coalition that includes his party alongside other Shiite parties closely aligned with Iran, but tellingly excludes the Da'wa Party of his increasingly assertive rival and the current prime minister, Nouri al Maliki. It also came a week after bombings rocked Baghdad and destroyed key government buildings, shattering Mr al Maliki's standing as Iraq's new strongman. Mr al Maliki has blamed Sunni elements living in Syria and even withdrew his ambassador from Damascus, but credible allegations of Iranian involvement have also surfaced, stirring speculation of violent inter-Shiite competition.

These developments illustrate Iraq's current state of political upheaval, with rising Kurdish discontent, Sunni frustration at the lack of government outreach and political reconciliation, and major divisions within Shiite ranks. With the security handover that put Iraqi forces in charge of the country's stability two month ago, the US role is contracting. In the absence of an outside arbiter and a regional consensus, jockeying for power and control over resources is intensifying.

Al Hakim was one of the pillars of the post-Saddam Hussein era, and a symbol of the factionalism and sectarianism that engulfed the country from 2003 until 2007. He led Iraq's largest Shiite party and was quick to install his followers in key positions of government. But the reputation of ISCI as the Shiite community's most sectarian movement and his avowed links to Iran did him considerable damage.

The armed wing of al Hakim's party, the Badr brigade, has been implicated in some of the worst episodes of sectarian violence and retribution against former Baathist elements and Sunni insurgents. Baqr Jabr al Zubaidi, the former interior minister and ISCI member, was even suspected of running death squads from inside the ministry. He was known as politically uncompromising, especially reluctant to engage in outreach efforts to the Sunni community.

Al Hakim led a united Shiite slate in the 2005 legislative elections, winning by a landslide in a contest characterised by its vehement sectarian atmosphere. This year, however, ISCI suffered a political defeat during the provincial elections that crowned Mr al Maliki. The results were widely interpreted as reflecting the strength of the Iraqi electorate's nationalistic feelings over narrow sectarian considerations and a rejection of attempts to further federalise Iraq with which al Hakim was associated.

A few years before, al Hakim had indeed floated the idea of a super Shiite province in southern Iraq grouping nine Shiite districts, but it was met with considerable scepticism within the Shiite community and outright opposition beyond. The fact that al Hakim sought medical treatment and died in Iran, where the firebrand Muqtada al Sadr is also living, is testament to the intimate links between a large part of the Iraqi Shiite political elite and the Islamic republic.

A savvy political operator, al Hakim enjoyed good tactical relations with Washington, but his ideological allegiance and religious reference remained in Iran where he spent his years in exile. Al Hakim's death complicates Shiite efforts at political unification ahead of next year's elections, which will be a defining moment in Iraq's history. Succession within ISCI seems a done deal with al Hakim's eldest son, Ammar, announcing his readiness to step in to his father's shoes.

But Ammar is no towering figure who can challenge Mr al Maliki's hold on power, and he has little time to dilute his sectarian image and expand the appeal of ISCI. ehokayem@thenational.ae