Iraqi Shiite with ties to Iran gains top billing

Posted in Iraq | 16-Dec-04 | Author: John F. Burns and Robert F. Wo| Source: International Herald Tribune

Iraqi Kurds waited at a school in Erbil Wednesday to register to vote. This is the last week for voter registration.
BAGHDAD On a list of 228 candidates submitted by a powerful Shiite-led political alliance to Iraq's electoral commission last week, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim's name was entered as No. 1. It was the clearest indication yet that in the upcoming January elections, with Iraq's Shiite majority likely to heavily outnumber Sunni voters, Hakim may emerge as the country's most powerful political figure.

Hakim, in his early 50s, is a pre-eminent example of a class of Iraqi Shiite leaders with close ties to Iran's ruling ayatollahs. His political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, was founded in Tehran, and U.S. intelligence officials say he had close ties with Iran's secret services and received heavy Iranian subsidies.

For the United States, and for Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which have Sunni Muslim majorities, the prospect of Hakim's and his associates' coming to power raises in stark form the brooding issue of Iran's future influence in Iraq.

Among Iraq's Sunni Arab minority, the fear of a Shiite-led government heavily influenced by Iran has helped drive a powerful insurgency. If large numbers of Sunnis boycott the elections, and pro-Iranian Shiite religious groups dominate the national assembly the voters will select, some Iraqis fear the country could spiral into civil war. They predict conflicts between Sunni and Shiite militias, or between secular and religious Shiite parties.

Nonetheless, many Iraqis and American experts on Iraq believe these fears are overstated. These officials say Iraqi clerics are generally wary of the idea of religious government, partly because of an entrenched doctrinal opposition among Iraq's Shiite religious leaders to direct rule by clerics, and partly because they recognize that Iraq's Sunni Muslims would fiercely resist it.

As election campaigning formally began on Wednesday among more than 230 parties and political groups that have entered lists of candidates, the question of Iranian influence will weigh heavily. Ghazi al-Yawar, the Sunni Arab sheik who was named Iraq's interim president, and King Abdullah of Jordan have both sounded warnings over the past week.

In a BBC interview in London on Monday, Yawar cited reports that Iran had pushed up to a million people across the more than 1,400-kilometer, or 900-mile, border with Iraq in a bid to influence the elections, and that Iranian money was flowing covertly to Shiite religious groups competing in the election.

"There are some elements in Iran who are playing a role in trying to influence the elections," he said.

But U.S. and Iraqi officials say that many of the migrants crossing the largely unmonitored border are Iraqi Shiite families who fled Saddam Hussein's repression, particularly after the failed Shiite uprising that followed the 1991 Gulf war. Aid groups working on Iran's side of the border have said that tens of thousands of Iraqis have been forced to return home, and that the citizenship of many other migrants remains unclear, in an area where there have been unregulated flows of tribal Arabs for centuries.

Also weighing against the prospect of an Iranian-style theocracy in Iraq is that Iraqi clerics, unlike the ayatollahs who dominate the government in Iran, mostly belong to the "quietist" school of Islam that holds that clerics should not hold political power directly. A forceful exponent of this view has been Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most powerful Shiite cleric in Iraq and an Iranian by birth, who used his pervasive influence to push rival religious groups together in the political alliance Hakim now leads.

In his rare interviews, Hakim himself has also spoken out against clerics filling government posts, saying that they should project their influence from the mosques, not ministries.

According to rivals of Hakim within the Shiite alliance, the ties he forged with Iran's ruling clerics during his exile years have been maintained since he and others in the Supreme Council returned to Iraq after Saddam's overthrow. These sources say that even now Hakim's group and other parties in the alliance, including Dawa, are receiving political advice and funding from Tehran. U.S. officials say that Iran, or at least powerful agencies controlled by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have backed a wide array of parties, militias and charitable groups that act as fronts for political activities here.

Nonetheless, Hakim has said that his party is respectful of Iran, but independent of it. Speaking in an interview with The New Yorker magazine before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, he said the group's forces, "will never be used as a tool of any foreign power."

In addition, Iraqi and U.S. officials say, the ethnic and cultural divisions that have carved deep historical fissures between Iran and Iraq militate against Iraq becoming a client state of Iran. Since Arab warriors conquered much of the Middle East some 1,300 years ago, the land that is modern-day Iraq has served as an Arab frontier.

Iraq's Shiites, overwhelmingly Arabs, the officials say, have always formed a crucial part of the Arab world's front-line defenses against Persian ambitions, most recently when tens of thousands of Iraqi Shiites fought in Iraq's armed forces during the war with Iran from 1980 to 1988.

There are also bitter rivalries among Iraqi Shiites themselves - within religious groups with ties to Iran. In fact, Hakim's party suspects that the group loyal to Moktada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric who has led uprisings against the Americans, is a likely suspect in the assassination of his older brother, Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim, in August 2003. For now, these rivalries have been held in check so that religious Shiite parties can band together for the elections, but, judging from conversations among the groups, few believe the truce will last long after the elections.

There is also tension between religious and secular Shiite parties.

While Saddam focused much of his brutality on restive Shiites, his rule entrenched secular ideas in Iraq, and many Shiites say they would fight rather than submit to the dictates of a harsh Islamic state.

"Eventually, the Iraqi people will have to decide - do they want a secular democracy or a regime dominated by religious figures?" said Adnan Pachachi, an 81-year-old former foreign minister and Sunni Arab.

"A religious government - I have a feeling that the Iraqi people would not tolerate a situation like that for too long. I can assure you that a lot of Shia, I think a majority, do not want a government dominated by religious figures."

U.S. and Iraqi officials interviewed for this article said that polls commissioned by the U.S. occupation authority, and more recently by the interim government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, have shown that ordinary Iraqis, including Shiites, are deeply suspicious of Iran's religious leadership, and strongly averse to a government dominated by religious figures. Still, many Iraqis are beginning to accept that men like Hakim are likely to play a determining role in the country's future.

Many U.S. and Iraqi officials say the talk of Iranian influence here reflects what they call a more plausible fear: that Shiite dominance in Iraq, coupled with Shiite rule in Iran, would reshape the geopolitical map of the Middle East. The development would be particularly threatening to Sunni-ruled states that border Iraq and run down the Gulf, the officials say, carrying as it would the threat of increasing unrest among long-suppressed Shiite populations.