BAGHDAD – Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the scion of a revered clerical family who channeled rising Shiite Muslim power after the fall of Saddam Hussein to become one of Iraq's most influential politicians, died Wednesday in Iran, the country that was long his key ally. He was 59.
The calm, soft-spoken al-Hakim, who died of lung cancer, was a kingmaker in Iraq's politics, working behind the scenes as the head of the country's biggest Shiite political party.
But for many in Iraq's Shiite majority, he was more than that — a symbol of their community's victory and seizure of power after decades of oppression under Saddam's Sunni-led regime. Al-Hakim's family led a Shiite rebel group against Saddam's rule from their exile in Iran, where he lived for 20 years, building close ties with Iranian leaders.
After Saddam's 2003 fall, al-Hakim hewed close to the Americans even while maintaining his alliance with Tehran, judging that the U.S. military was key to the Shiite rise.
Among Iraq's minority Sunnis, he was deeply distrusted, seen as a tool of Shiite Iran. Al-Hakim's outspoken support for Shiite self-rule in southern Iraq was seen by Sunnis and even some Shiites as an Iran-inspired plan to hand Tehran control of Iraq's Shiite heartland, home to most of its oil wealth.
His death comes at a time of political upheaval among Iraq's majority Shiites. The alliance of Shiite parties that al-Hakim helped forge and that has dominated the government since the first post-Saddam elections in 2005 has broken apart ahead of January parliamentary elections, pitting a coalition led by al-Hakim's party against another led by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
As al-Hakim largely withdrew from the public arena due to his illness, his son and political heir Ammar has taken the lead in his party, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council.
Ammar's relative lack of experience has raised some questions over whether he will be able to hold the organization together at a sensitive time in Iraqi politics, but party leaders have insisted they would remain united behind the al-Hakim family.
Ammar announced his father's death in a statement read on his party's al-Forat television station. He said his father, "who spent decades in jihad and struggle, has joined the ranks of the martyrs." The station showed scenes from the elder al-Hakim's life while playing somber music.
Two top aides, Humam Hamoudi and Jalaluddin al-Saghir, told The Associated Press that al-Hakim had been rushed to a hospital in Tehran after his condition deteriorated and died Wednesday. Al-Hakim was diagnosed with lung cancer in May 2007 after tests at the prestigious University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. He chose to receive his chemotherapy treatment in Iran.
Deputy parliament speaker, Shiite Khalid al-Attiyah, described his death as a loss for Iraq.
"We offer our condolences to all the Iraqi people for the death of al-Hakim. He is one of the symbols of Iraq ... we hope political leaders will continue his work."
The Kurds, who allied with the Shiite coalition al-Hakim built, said his death was a loss to those who worked to reconcile Iraq's often warring religious and ethnic factions.
"He had a significant role in Iraq's national unity and was working hard to narrow the different opinions among all Iraqis," Fuad Hussein, spokesman for Kurdish Regional President Massoud Barzani told The AP. "We hope that all the Iraqi people and their leaders will follow his example and directions and never abandon his ideology and path."
Al-Hakim was born in 1950 in Najaf to one of Shiite Islam's most prestigious clerical families. His father was Grand Ayatollah Muhsin al-Hakim, among the most influential Shiite scholars of his generation.
The younger al-Hakim studied theology in Najaf and married the daughter of Mohammed Hadi al-Sadr, member of another prominent Iraqi Shiite clan. After the 1970 death of his father, al-Hakim and his brothers became active in political opposition to Saddam's Baath Party.
He was jailed several times until he and most of the family fled to neighboring Iran in 1980 following a crackdown by Saddam on the Shiite opposition. In Iran, his older brother, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, founded the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the forerunner of the SIIC. Abdul-Aziz headed the group's military wing, the Badr Brigade, which fought alongside Iranian forces during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War.
The al-Hakim brothers returned to Iraq soon after the collapse of Saddam's government. On Aug. 29, 2003, a massive vehicle bomb exploded outside the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, killing Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim and more than 80 others. Abdul-Aziz stepped into the leadership of the Supreme Council.
The younger al-Hakim lacked his brother's charisma, religious standing or political acumen. But he proved a fast learner and able leader, quickly building the party into Iraq's largest Shiite political organization. He served on the leadership councils formed by the Americans. Then, in the 2005 parliament election, he forged a grand alliance of Shiite parties — backed by Iran's foremost Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, which swept up a majority.
The coalition allied with the Kurds to form a government, though it constantly struggled to keep Sunni allies.
But signs of fraying among Shiites began to show in key Jan. 31 provincial elections, when members of the coalition competed against each other in the Shiite south. The Supreme Council suffered an embarrassing defeat in much of the south, while al-Maliki — head of the rival Dawa party — surged because of his popularity from security gains. The results were also seen as a voter backlash against religious parties as well as the Supreme Council's failure to improve public services in the south, where it had dominated since 2003.
Two days before al-Hakim's death, his SIIC joined with followers of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to form a new political alliance to contest January parliamentary elections. The new Iraqi National Alliance excluded al-Maliki, making overt the new disunity among Shiites.
Al-Hakim is survived by his wife and three other children besides Ammar.