The head of Iraq's leading Shia dynasty has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. His young son wants to take his place, but the knives are now coming outby Nibras Kazimi / July 28, 2007 / Leave a comment
Fathers and heirs
A couple of years ago I asked Ammar al-Hakim whether his father was still chain-smoking those pungent Iranian-made Bahman cigarettes. “No, we got him smoking Kingston now,” he said with some relief. The elder al-Hakim, Abdel-Aziz, 57, head of the newly renamed Supreme Council of Iraq (which dropped the ominously sounding “Islamic Revolution” from its title a few weeks ago) and leader of the United Iraqi Alliance, Iraq’s Shia parliamentary bloc, has just been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Baghdad is abuzz with news and rumours of succession and political confusion.
Abdel-Aziz Hakim used to serve as his elder brother Muhammad Baqr’s political manager, and was never envisioned as the headline act of Iraq’s leading Shia clerical and political dynasty. But in August 2003, Baqr was torn to shreds by an al Qaeda car bomb allegedly delivered by Abu Musaab Al-Zarqawi’s father-in-law, and Abdel-Aziz was next in line. In contrast to his brother, Abdel-Aziz was grim, inarticulate and shadowed by claims of having played a blood-soaked role during his youth as a commander of the Badr Corps, the Supreme Council’s Iranian-funded paramilitary force. The brothers’ father, Grand Ayatollah Muhsin Hakim, was the paramount global Shia figure of the 1960s—the Sistani of his time. The Hakim family could lay claim to having suffered a particularly harsh fate under the Baathists. Some 60 members were murdered, among them Mahdi Hakim, the ayatollah’s eldest son, who was gunned down by Saddam’s death squads in Sudan in 1988. Another Hakim, Muhammad Said, is widely acknowledged as Sistani’s close second in the Shia religious hierarchy.
After the fall of Saddam, Hakim-watchers began paying attention to a new star: Ammar. He was young, affable and modest, and spoke with a moderate tone that seemed suited to the new democratic Iraq. Ammar was tasked with running the Supreme Council’s charity arm, the Shahid al-Mihrab Foundation for Islamic Proselytisation, established with Iranian money to mirror another piece of Iran’s network of foreign welfare patronage—Hizbullah, in Lebanon. Ammar also established his party’s media flagship, Al-Furat Satellite TV, which is housed in a building larger and better equipped than Iraq’s state television station. And he was his father’s envoy on a Washington charm campaign in August 2005, with the message that the Arab Shia were America’s natural allies in facing down Sunni fundamentalism in the middle east. But as Ammar began registering on political…