Spiritual leader returns to be hailed as saviour

The Telegraph (England), May 5, 2003
By Kate Connolly and Charlotte Edwardes in Basra

The Iraqi spiritual leader who returned home at the weekend after more than two decades of exile in neighbouring Iran continued to galvanise support for an Islamic government across Iraq yesterday as Shi’ite Muslims lauded him their saviour from years of oppression.

Mohammed Baqer al Hakim, 63, and hundreds of followers who arrived with him from Iran on Saturday, paid a visit to Shia Marsh Arabs, who under Saddam Hussein’s regime were driven from their homes.

Al Hakim’s party, the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq, is expected to play a central role in the construction of a new administration.

But the United States has expressed its concern that he will push for an Islamic regime similar to that in Iran where he lived for 23 years after being forced into exile by Saddam.

Al Hakim, who returned with members of his 15,000-strong militia, the Badr Corps, has built a strong following. Significantly, he has received the full moral and financial backing of Teheran. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard trained and armed his militia.

In an emotional address to tens of thousands of weeping followers in the Celebration Square Stadium in the British-occupied southern city of Basra on Saturday, al Hakim tempered his speech to include calls for democracy for Iraq.

He also pushed for Sharia (Islamic) law, under which citizens would have to adhere to Islamic ideals such as the veiling of women and a ban on alcohol, under the supervision of mullahs (religious clerics).

Fears that al Hakim’s comeback was being orchestrated by Teheran were given credence after he was accompanied into Iraq by carloads of members of the Iranian Secret Service.

Experts believe that he faces a tough task to maintain his links with Iran while persuading Iraq’s patriotic Shia, who make up 60 per cent of the population, that he is one of them.

He also faces considerable opposition from the more secular Shia who oppose any semblance of a theocratic state.

Dr Vanessa Martin, a specialist in Islamic groups at London University, said: “To be fully accepted by the Iraqi Shia he will need to distance himself from Iran.

“There is a strong cultural divide between the Shia of the two countries. The question is how far he can afford to be severed from Iran.”

Al Hakim’s Supreme Council presents itself as a moderate and peace-loving party that fights for equality and justice but, on its own admission, it has links to Islamic fundamentalist groups, including movements in Lebanon, Syria and Saudi Arabia.

Members of the Iraqi faction of Hizbollah, who in the 1980s were responsible for the kidnapping of westerners such as Terry Waite and John McCarthy in Lebanon, were among those who came to greet the returning al Hakim in Basra.

Since the fall of the Ba’athist regime, al Hakim’s face has replaced that of Saddam, and often appears on posters alongside that of other religious leaders, such as Mohammed Bakr al Sadr, co-founder of the al Dawa movement, which shares the same spiritual guide as the Lebanese Hizbollah, Sheikh Fadlullah.

According to a spokesman for the Supreme Council, it is an umbrella group for 70 different Islamic movements across the region and has main offices in London, Damascus, Geneva and Vienna.

Al Hakim was born and studied in the holy city of Najaf in western Iraq and lost more than 20 members of his family to Saddam’s regime.

He was reported to have said during an interview in Teheran in February that any attempt to instal a Pentagon general in post-war Iraq would “have very dangerous consequences . . . this could start a religious war in Iraq and neighbouring countries”.

He said: “This will open the door to violence and terrorism against the United States.”

Last month he affirmed his commitment to Iran by calling for his followers to “remain committed to the fatwas [religious decrees] and demands of religious clerics . . . such as the important statements made by Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei [Iran’s religious leader]”.

However, on Saturday he appeared to make concessions to American sensitivities, by claiming that the new Iraq would represent Christians and all the other minorities as well as Muslims. But women were noticeably absent during the rally.

Leaders of Saudi Arabia’s Shi’ite Muslim minority have petitioned Crown Prince Abdullah to demand a greater say in the affairs of the conservative Sunni-ruled kingdom.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday May 13, 2003.
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