"Weapons of Mass Deception"


The Hour of the Mullahs

The upcoming Iraqi elections are opening up old wounds. Faced with the prospect of a Shiite victory, Iraq's Sunnis are at odds with Tehran's religious conservatives. They view Shiite leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim as little more than a a puppet of Iraq's former enemy Iran.

By Bernhard Zand

Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim must have known early on that one day the burden of responsibility would rest on his shoulders.

Saddam Hussein had six of his brothers murdered. Only one of his brothers was still alive when the tyrant was overthrown and the rest of his family was able to return from exile in Iran. Mohammed Bakir al-Hakim, the ayatollah, spent 20 years in Tehran preparing to rehabilitate the Hakim family and to bring Shiites into power in Iraq. Three months later, this seventh brother became the victim of a politically motivated assassination. He and almost a hundred of his supporters died on August 29, 2003 at the gates of the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf, in what has been the biggest attack to date in post-war Iraq. Abd al-Aziz, who had always been overshadowed by Mohammed Bakir, took his brother's place as the leader of Iraq's most powerful Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

Little was heard from him after that. Hakim was a member of the Governing Council set up by US Civilian Administrator Paul Bremer. His supporters were part of the subsequent Iraqi transitional government, while Hakim himself focused on developing political connections and expanding the Badr Brigade, the country's most powerful militia. But Hakim consistently avoided public appearances, preferring to wield power from behind the scenes.

That will now change. Hakim's name is at the top of the list of candidates being fielded by the United Iraqi Alliance, forged by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and the most powerful political alliance heading into the election slated for January 30.

Hakim also plays a key role in the central issue dominating the election: Can a Shiite victory pacify Iraq, or would Hakim's election to the office of president or prime minister merely pave the way for Tehran to assume control over the country?

Last week's good news of the release of two kidnapped French journalists on Tuesday was overshadowed by a series of grim reports. By last Wednesday, the week's death toll had already risen to 90, including 22 killed in an attack on a US mess hall in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and 66 in a double attack on Shiite shrines in Najaf and Kerbela. According to interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, the terrorists' goal is to "create ethnic and religious conflicts." Allawi believes that the terrorists operating in Iraq are using Osama bin Laden as their model, and that the number of attacks will increase during the weeks leading up to the election.

It is unsettling that even some of Allawi's supporters are contributing to heightened tensions. They have been inciting Iraqis to a level of hatred that had previously been preached only by extremist fringe groups, and are being backed by politicians ranging well into the ranks of moderate groups. Allawi's defense minister, Hazem Shaalan, has demonized the election alliance headed by Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim. "Iran is Iraq's and the Arab world's most dangerous enemy," Shaalan told a group of American and military personnel and NATO officers in Baghdad. "We must focus all of our efforts on stopping these advancing black hordes," he said. Shaalan's words may have reminded some in his audience of Saddam's anti-Persian propaganda during the Iraq/Iran war. But the central message in Shaalan's election campaign - that the black-turbaned Shiite mullahs plan to establish a "dictatorship of Islam" -- has long been a standard argument of Washington's foreign policy hawks.

Is Tehran meddling in the election?

Last week, US President George W. Bush said that Iranian meddling in the Iraqi elections would be unacceptable. In an interview with the BBC, Iraqi interim President Ghazi al-Yawer provided Bush with plenty of cause for concern. Tehran, al-Yawer said, is lending financial support to Shiite parties in Iraq, and it has already stationed hundreds of thousands of troops along the two countries' 1,400-kilometer (870-mile) shared border to exert its influence over the outcome of the election. Members of Iraq's Sunni minority are truly alarmed by Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim's offer to have his 100,000-strong Badr Brigade guard polling sites on January 30. The brigade, established in Tehran in the 1980s and trained by Khomeini's revolutionary guard, fought alongside the Iraqis in the first Gulf War, and many Iraqis refer to its members simply as "the Iranians."

Hakim himself spent 20 years in Iranian exile. His trimmed beard, collarless shirt, brown robe and black turban, which identify him as a descendant of the prophet Mohammed, correspond precisely to the image of an Iranian cleric. He already aroused suspicion when, as a member of the Iraqi Governing Council, he visited Iran in the fall of 2003 and then Iran's new ally, Syrian President Bashir al-Assad.

He also offended Sunnis, Christians and even secular Shiites when, as president of the Governing Council, he tried to establish Sharia law as the basis for Iraqi family and divorce law in December 2003. Hakim's plan met with resistance from a broad coalition of secular members of the government, as well as Paul Bremer, and ultimately failed.

The problem faced by Bremer's successors in Baghdad is that despite the many concerns raised by the leading Shia candidate, Hakim remains the Shiite's best hope. The alliance headed by Ayad Allawi, who Washington installed as interim prime minister in June, is not expected to fare well in the upcoming election. Allawi is widely viewed as an American puppet who further discredited himself by authorizing the attack on Falluja and by repeatedly expressing his appreciation to the US military.

A man with broad appeal

In contrast, Hakim appears to have achieved something that has eluded every other post-war political leader in Iraq: He has sufficiently distanced himself from the Americans, thus broadening his appeal among widely disparate groups, while at the same time maintaining a chilly but cordial relationship with Washington, a relationship that will come in handy should Iraq's first democratically elected parliament appoint him president or prime minister.

Before the Iraq war began, Hakim met with US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney. The way things have developed in Iraq since then, Hakim's appeal now makes up for his shortcomings, at least from Washington's perspective. He is more moderate that the young Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and more credible than Ahmed Chalabi, Washington's former and long-since abandoned protégé who, following a prolonged dispute with Hakim, has now joined the same election coalition.

Hakim also has the blessing of the one man who will presumably decide the outcome of the election: Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the principal spiritual leader of Iraq's Shiites. Unlike Hakim, Sistani is Persian by birth and still holds an Iranian passport, which disqualifies him from running for political office in Iraq. Even if he could run for office, Sistani is unlikely to do so. In contrast to the ayatollahs in Tehran, he is a member of "quietist" school of the Shia, which frowns on clerics holding political office.

A close associate reports that in recent weeks Hakim's headquarters in the Tigris villa of Saddam's former foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, has been turned into a sort of politburo for Sistani, who normally lives quietly in Najaf. According to the source, "Sayyid Hakim meets with him almost daily for spiritual advice and guidance."

It's an effective division of labor. After all, unlike Sistani or his murdered brother, Mohammed Bakir, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim's spiritual education only brought him to the rank of Hojatolislam, the second-highest rank in the religion before reaching the status of ayatollah. He would have to spend at least another decade studying the scriptures to reach the rank of ayatollah.

It remains to be seen, however, what kinds of political appointments Hakim the politician has in mind should his election coalition prevail at the polls in late January. He is rumored to be considering nuclear scientist Hussein al-Sharistani, currently the number seven candidate on his election list, for the position of prime minister. According to Hakim's associate, however, "Sayyid Hakim is ambitious. I believe he wants to be president.",1518,334601,00.html

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Milton Frihetsson, 15:43


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