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  • 8/29/2004

Ayatollah Sayed Mohammed Baqir al- Hakim

(1939 -August 29, 2003)

Ayatollah Sayed Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim was the foremost Shi'a Muslim leader in Iraq until his assassination in a terrorist bombing that killed him along with nearly 100 worshippers as they were leaving a mosque in Najaf at which he had led prayers. He was the son of Grand Ayatollah Sayed Muhsin al-Hakim Tabatabai, the worldwide leader of Shi'a Muslims from 1955 to 1970.

Al-Hakim co-founded the modern Islamist political movement in Iraq in the 1960s, along with Ayatollah Sayed Mohammed Baqir Al-Sadr, with whom he worked closely until the latter's death in 1980. Though not among the most hard-line of Islamists, Al-Hakim was seen as dangerous by the ruling Ba'ath regime, largely because of his agitation on behalf of Iraq's majority Shi'a population (the ruling regime was comprised mostly of Sunnis). This led to his arrest in 1972, but he was released shortly thereafter.

He was partially blamed for the uprising in Najaf that occurred in February 1977, and so was arrested again, and this time sentenced to life imprisonment. However, his sentence was commuted and he was released in July 1979. The subsequent eruption of war between Iraq and (largely Shi'a) Iran led to an ever-increasing distrust of Iraq's Shi'a population by the ruling Ba'ath party; combined with his previous arrests, this convinced Al-Hakim that it was impossible to continue his Shi'a advocacy in Iraq, and in 1980 he fled toIran.

Safely in Iran, Al-Hakim became an open enemy of the Ba'athists, forming the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a revolutionary group dedicated to overthrowing Saddam Hossein's regime. In 1983, Hossein responded by arresting 125 members of Al-Hakim's family who had remained in Iraq, and executing 18 of them. This further embittered Al-Hakim towards the Ba'athists and towards Hossein in particular. With Iranian aid, SCIRI became an armed resistance group, periodically making cross-border attacks on Iraqi facilities, maintaining covert connections with resistance elements within the country, and generally being a perennial thorn in Hossein's side.

Al-Hakim returned toIraq in May 2003 following the overthrow of Hossein's regime by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. There he emerged as one of the most influential Iraqi leaders, with his longtime opposition to Hossein gaining him immense credibility, especially among the majority Shi'a population.

Initially he was very critical of the US-led occupation of Iraq, saying "we do not put confidence in the Americans, they have always acted against the interests of the Iraqi people" and urging Iraqis not to follow the US administration's dictates. However, he did give the US credit for overthrowing the hated Ba'athist regime, and through the summer of 2003 indicated some willingness to work with the Americans in setting up a civilian government inIraq. Al-Hakim's brother and fellow Muslim leader, Ahmed al-Barak, was appointed to the Iraq interim governing council and the two worked closely together. By the time of his death, he remained distrustful, but urged Iraqis to abandon violence, at least for the time being, and give the interim government a chance to earn their trust.

It is unclear who was behind the massive bomb attack that killed him. A spokesman for SCIRI in London suggested that supporters of Saddam Hossein may have been behind the attack; others suggested it may have been orchestrated by Sunnis not necessarily connected to Hossein who opposed the increasing Shi'a influence in the country; still others suggested it may have been carried out by other Shi'a groups, either as part of an internal power struggle or as a hard-line reaction to his increasingly conciliatory line towards the United States.

The fact that his assassination came in the midst of a pattern of violence against Shi'a clerics in Najaf in the weeks leading up to his death (Al-Hakim was the fourth to be assassinated) led some to conclude that the attack was most likely motivated by anti-Shi'a sentiment. On the other hand, the violent history of rivalry between Shi'a factions and the unexplained circumstances of these attacks has led others to conclude that the attack was most likely carried out by supporters of a rival Shi'a leader, possibly hardliner Muqtada al-Sadr.

OnAugust 30, 2003, Iraqi authorities arrested four people in connection with the bombing: two former members of the Ba'athist regime fromBasra, and two non-Iraqi Arabs from the puritanical Wahhabi sect.

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