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Shiite Hero Hakim Survived Battles With Regime

Assassinated cleric was part of a hallowed lineage. Prior to exile, his life was marked by killings, imprisonment and torture, he had said.

August 30, 2003|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — A month after the U.S. and its allies toppled Saddam Hussein, Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr Hakim returned to Iraq, heading to his birthplace, the holy city of Najaf, ending more than two decades in exile in Iran. Thousands of children offered sticky sweets and adults cheered the motorcade bringing Hakim across the border to Basra, where he had engineered unsuccessful revolts that cost thousands of lives.

Hakim, religious teacher, warrior and heir of an almost royal family, was coming home a hero to Shiites who had been oppressed by the Baathist regime for generations.

On Friday, Hakim, 64, was assassinated by a car bomb that also killed scores of his fellow Shiites during prayers at the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf. It was the second attack on a prominent Shiite cleric at the sacred site since Hussein was ousted. And it was the second attack on a member of Hakim's family in about a week.

In a part of the world where history is often written in blood, the Hakim family chronicles are especially violent: Torture, murder, imprisonment and flight are rites of passage. Hakim survived at least seven assassination attempts before Friday, he had said. His brother, Abdelaziz, a member of the 25-person Iraqi Governing Council created by the Americans, has survived at least five attempts.

In a February interview with the New Yorker magazine, Hakim described his life.

"I was born in Iraq, went to a madrasa in Iraq, went to prison in Iraq, was tortured in Iraq.... When the monarchy was toppled I was nineteen. I had grown up in a kind of poor family, but at the same time it was respected," he said.

His life, he said, "was characterized by killings, imprisonments, and I was tortured. I was burned with cigarettes, electroshocked. My head was put into a metal vise; I was beaten very harshly and imprisoned in a cell where I couldn't distinguish between night and day. All of this happened when I was in my youth."

He said that five of his brothers and nine nephews were killed. "Fifty of my relatives were killed or disappeared. I've had seven assassination attempts against me, but I depend on the Almighty to cleanse my soul, and I am not tired, I will continue."

Hakim was born in 1939 in Najaf, the fourth child of the second wife of Grand Ayatollah Sayed Muhsin Hakim, then the spiritual leader of Shiite Muslims. The family traces its roots to Imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet Muhammad. That relation entitles men of the Hakim lineage to wear the sayyid -- the black turban -- indicating direct descent from the prophet.

By all accounts, Hakim was marked early on as his father's protege, becoming a scholar and eventually writing 33 books on Islamic philosophy and politics. He taught theology at Baghdad's College of Religious Essence until 1965, when it was shuttered by the Baathists.

When the elder Hakim died in 1970, his spiritual leadership passed to Mohammed Bakr Sadr. But before his death, the elder Hakim issued a fatwa, or religious decree, condemning the Baathist regime that took control of Iraq in a 1969 coup. He urged his supporters to back the militant Dawa Party, which was fighting Baath Party members.

That decree turned Shiites, especially the Hakims, into revolutionaries against the Baathists, who retaliated with a vengeance.

In 1976, the regime banned one of the Shiites' devotional duties: the annual pilgrimage to the Imam Ali shrine. Led by the Hakims, Shiites revolted, but their effort was short-lived. In the wake of the Baathists' reasserting control, Hussein's police conducted wholesale arrests and executions in the Shiite community. Hakim and his relatives were among those who spent time in prison.

After about six months, Hakim was freed but remained on the death list kept by Hussein's secret police. He fled to Syria, then to his mother's homeland, Lebanon, before finding sanctuary in Iran, a seat of Shiite power. By 1982, he had founded the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the leading Shiite exile group, and Abdelaziz became the de facto military commander. Nephews filled the key leadership posts.

Abdelaziz Hakim has became the public face of the Supreme Council, visiting other exile groups and even Washington to discuss toppling Hussein in the days before the March invasion. His role propelled him onto the Governing Council, composed of former dissidents who are being groomed to become the seeds of the new Iraq. With Shiites accounting for about 60% of Iraq's population, he and other Shiites are prominent members of the secular government, rivaling the authority Mohammed Bakr Hakim had earned in religious matters.

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