Assuming the January elections take place with a reasonable degree of legitimacy--and barring untoward events--Iraq's new leader will almost certainly be Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. Who is he? What does he stand for? Is he a moderate, a Muslim fundamentalist or, as some fear, a stalking horse for Iranian expansionism? The picture we have of him is vague and contradictory and bears some analysis.
Born around 1953 (the date is uncertain), Hakim is head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Formed in 1982 by his brother Mohammad Bakr al-Hakim, SCIRI originally was an Iranian-based group of Iraqi Shia dedicated to overthrowing Saddam. Abdul Hakim directed SCIRI's military wing, the Badr Brigade, which boasted from 5,000 to 10,000 men trained by Iran's Revolutionary Guards--but whose fighting capabilities proved overrated against Saddam's troops in 1991. When In August 2003, a car bomb detonating outside the Mosque of Ali in Najaf killed Mohammad, Abdul assumed SCIRI's leadership.
Despite their Iranian ties, both SCIRI and Hakim have walked a fine line between Washington and Tehran. In winter 2003, for example, Iran--over U.S. protests--dispatched 5,000 SCIRI fighters into Kurdistan in part to extend its influence over northern Iraq. According to The Secret History of the War in Iraq, by Yussef Bodansky, that February, Abdul declared that his Badr Brigade "is dependent on Iranian policy. We abide by the decisions of the Iranian government." He also declared that "Even if the regime in Baghdad is toppled, we will continue our resistance." During the invasion, the Brigade obeyed Tehran's injunction not to assist Coalition forces against Saddam.
Still, SCIRI's contacts with Washington date back at least to 1993--and during the invasion, Mohammad Hakim cautioned his followers not to fight U.S. or British troops. He also allowed Abdul to serve on the American-appointed Governing Council. Indeed, SCIRI's moderate, or neutral, attitude toward the Coalition "occupiers" is a major reason for the relative calm of Shia-dominated southern Iraq.
Officially, at least, SCIRI still endorses Ayatollah Khomeini's concept of Velayat-e-Faqih, or rule by religious clerics. SCIRI publications often laud Khomeini, as did many SCIRI members I met in Baghdad and Basra. Over time, though, the group has evolved into a social service network, filling in gaps left by Saddam's fall and Coalition neglect. The Badr Brigade, for example, rechristened itself the "Badr Organization for Development and Reconstruction." and in May 2003, a spokesman denied that SCIRI advocated an "Iranian style theocracy." Observers expect that Hakim and his organization will continue to be influenced by Ayatollah Sistani's "Quietist" views, which oppose religious activism.
Like most Shia leaders, Hakim has kept his cards close to his chest. Nevertheless, he has indicated some positions. Last February, he told PBS' Frontline,
We don't want an Islamic government. We want a constitutional government that preserves the rights of everyone...To respect Islam is one thing, and to establish an Islamic government is something else.
Another issue is Hakim's position on federalism--or, to put it another way,.the Kurdish question. The Kurds fiercely defend their semi-independent status, want little to do with the Shia conception of shari'a, or Islamic law, and have the best Iraq fighters to protect, or assert, their desires. Hakim appears to waffle on this issue. Speaking to Turkey's foreign minister last January, he opposed federalism based on an ethnic basis in favor of "a geography-based federal system;" at the same time, thought, he remained vague if Iraqi's new constitution would enshrine Kurdish rights. Speaking to Iranian journalist last July, he stated that SCIRI believes "so long as a federal system would solve the problem of the Iraqi Kurds, it will be okay." What "okay" means will come clear next December, when Iraq's new parliament draws up a permanent constitution. How moderate Hakim truly is, whether his vision of Iraq includes granting rights to non-Arab, non-Shia minorities and how independent he is from Tehran--all this waits to be revealed.
UPDATE: Providing a solider's-eye view of Mohammad al-Hakim--and Iraq in general--is The Adventures of Chester. Check out what he has to say here.