BAGHDAD — The death of political and religious leader Abdelaziz Hakim on Wednesday heralded a new era of uncertainty in Iraq's Shiite Muslim politics as the country heads toward national elections early next year.
Hakim, who headed the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, died in a Tehran hospital after a long battle with lung cancer. He was 59.
The Shiite leader was a towering figure in the Iraqi political landscape after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. He led a coalition of Shiite parties to victory in the 2005 elections while juggling his close relationships with both Washington and Tehran.
Though his influence had waned in the two years since his cancer was diagnosed, he continued to play an active role in politics almost to the end. But his death probably will further diminish the standing of his political movement, opening the door to potential Shiite challengers, analysts said.
"The decline of the Supreme Council is something that had been going on for a while, and this confirms the decline," said Reidar Visser, research fellow at the Norwegian Institute for International Affairs and editor of the Iraq website historiae.org.
The most probable candidate to succeed Hakim is his son Ammar, who at 38 is considered young for political leadership in Iraq and is unlikely to immediately enjoy the success his father did. The council's members will meet to choose a successor, spokesman Ridha Jawad Taqi said.
Abdelaziz Hakim's death coincides with a period of frenetic political negotiations before the January elections, and came just two days after Shiite leaders launched a revamped version of the coalition he headed in the last polling. The Supreme Council was at the launch, but its leaders did not play as prominent a role as Hakim had at the founding of the coalition in 2004.
The absence of Hakim will probably lead to a power struggle between the dominant council and the Shiite alliance's other major faction, which is loyal to cleric Muqtada Sadr, just as the coalition is gearing up to compete for votes, Visser said.
Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who did not attend Monday's launch, appears set to run separately from his former allies at the head of his own coalition. His moves had already suggested that the Shiite vote would be divided.
Hakim owed much of his standing in the post-Saddam Hussein political order to the prominent role given to him by the Americans, who cultivated him as the chief representative of Shiites in Iraq even though it quickly became apparent that there were many other candidates.
As a prominent member of the U.S.-appointed Governing Council set up to advise administrator L. Paul Bremer III in the months after the invasion, he became a close American ally who spoke regularly with President George W. Bush by telephone and was received at the White House on three occasions.
But his chief benefactor was Iran, where the Supreme Council was founded in the 1980s to oppose the Hussein regime and where Hakim spent more than two decades. The Bush administration began to sour on him in 2007, after the extent of his relationship with Tehran became clear. Hakim's star fell further after provincial elections early this year in which his slate of candidates performed poorly.
A theologian who always wore the black turban and flowing robes of a senior Shiite cleric, Hakim was seen as a divisive figure by many Sunnis. Some associate him with the killings of Sunni Muslims by the Supreme Council's military wing, the Badr Organization, and with the ascendant influence of Iran in the new Iraq. It was considered a telling sign of his allegiances that though he was diagnosed with cancer at a U.S. hospital, he chose to receive chemotherapy in Tehran.
The Supreme Council nonetheless remains a force, with control over several major government ministries. It also wields much influence in the Iraqi security forces, notably the police, after the Badr militia was absorbed into the security structures in 2005 under the supervision of an interior minister affiliated with the council.
Hakim had assumed the leadership of the council after his brother Mohammed Bakr Hakim was assassinated in a car bombing in 2003. His six other brothers were killed by Hussein's regime, and Hakim himself was imprisoned three times before he fled to Iran in 1980.
In a statement read on the council's Al Furat television station, Ammar Hakim hailed his father's life of "jihad and struggle against injustice." Maliki issued a statement of condolence describing the senior Hakim as "a brother and a pillar of strength during the battle against the former regime."
He was, Maliki said, "a foundation stone in the building of the new Iraq, and his death at this sensitive time is considered a great loss for Iraq."
U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill and Army Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of American forces in Iraq, also issued a brief statement, saying that Hakim had "demonstrated courage and fortitude, contributing to the building of a new Iraq."
Times staff writer Raheem Salman contributed to this report