Thousands gather to mourn Shia leader al-Hakim in Baghdad
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Thousands of Iraqis paid tribute in Baghdad to Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, a leading Shia cleric and politician, who headed the country's largest Shiite party. Al-Hakim died two days ago in Iran, while undergoing treatment for lung cancer.
REUTERS - Thousands of Iraqis on Friday mourned the death of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a leading Shi’ite Muslim figure whose death could heighten political instability before national polls many fear may be marred by violence.
Hakim, who headed one of Iraq’s most powerful Shi’ite Muslim parties, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI), died in Tehran on Wednesday where he was being treated for lung cancer.
A sea of people, some waving black banners, walked alongside Hakim’s hearse towards a revered Shi’ite mosque in Baghdad, one of several sites where his casket is expected to be taken before being buried in the holy Shi’ite city of Najaf on Saturday.
Iraqi leaders and other officials gathered at the Baghdad airport earlier on Friday to receive his body from Iran. Some sobbed audibly, and flowers were thrown on Hakim’s coffin as it was carried off the plane. Senior Iraqi officials sat in a mourning tent nearby specially constructed for the ceremony.
Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a fellow Shi’ite Arab, President Jalal Talabani, an ethnic Kurd, and other senior figures offered their condolences to Ammar al-Hakim, one of Hakim’s sons and a likely successor as the head of ISCI.
A member of Maliki’s governing coalition, ISCI on Monday said it would lead a new, mostly Shi’ite alliance to compete in January’s national polls with the notable absence of Maliki, raising questions about a split among Iraq’s Shi’ite majority.
“We should talk today of your loss to us Sayyid Hakim, while we are in a sensitive stage that is still critical,” Maliki said in a speech at the airport, using an honorific title for Hakim and making no overt references to Shi’ite politics.
Ammar al-Hakim, who despite having been groomed to take over ISCI may face internal leadership challenges, urged those outside the new alliance to take part as he spoke at a mosque where his father’s casket was taken after the airport.
“I appeal to the dear brothers, those who haven’t made their decision to join to the coalition. I ask them to reconsider their decision,” he said.
ISCI and Maliki’s Dawa party swept to power in 2005 polls as part of a broad Shi’ite coalition, but over the past year wrangling over alliances has intensified against a backdrop of continued violence that, as U.S. forces prepare to withdraw, raises doubts about the durability of Iraq’s security gains.
Some analysts believe political jostling could intensify violence ahead of the parliamentary elections.
Hakim was born in 1950 and took over ISCI after his elder brother was killed in a car bomb in 2003.
Founded in Iran in exile during Sunni Arab dictator Saddam Hussein’s rule, ISCI derives much support from the Hakim family name, revered among Shi’ites for its lineage of scholars and sacrifice in the face of assaults by Saddam and other violence.
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