BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The leader of one of Iraq’s most powerful Shi’ite Muslim political groups and most important religious dynasties died on Wednesday, adding to uncertainty in a violent run-up to an election next January.
Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who headed the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI), a major partner in the Shi’ite-led government, died while undergoing treatment for cancer in Iran, ISCI said.
“It is a painful event and a great tragedy,” the ISCI-owned television station quoted Ammar al-Hakim, his son and likely successor as party leader, as saying.
ISCI officials said two funerals would be held, in Iran and in Iraq.
Born in 1950, Hakim lead ISCI since 2003 after his brother, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqer al-Hakim, was killed by a car bomb.
ISCI is part of Iraq’s ruling Shi’ite alliance, which includes Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Dawa party, but it said this week it would lead a new group to compete in January’s polls without Maliki.
Hakim’s “death at this sensitive stage that we are going through is considered a big loss,” Maliki said in a statement.
Anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a fellow member of the new, mainly Shi’ite alliance said: “This is a promise from me to all his followers...to be brothers and partners in this life and the next as they ask for the liberation of Iraq.”
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs extended condolences to Hakim’s family and colleagues on behalf of the Obama administration.
“We were saddened to learn of the passing of His Eminence Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who has played an important role in Iraq’s national history,” the White House statement said.
Iraqi state television displayed a black banner of mourning and passages from the Quran in Hakim’s honor.
Political analyst Hazim al-Nuaimi said the loss of ISCI’s chief peacemaker could lead to infighting.
ISCI must take care to line up behind the new leader, whoever he may be, in the five months before what are sure to be fiercely contested elections.
“Anyone who sees ISCI as vulnerable will try to take its place,” said Mohammed Abdul Jabar, a former Shi’ite politician who now edits a weekly magazine.
Jalal al-Din al-Sagheer, who heads ISCI’s parliament bloc, said Ammar al-Hakim would be interim party chief and that a permanent leader would be chosen soon by senior clerics.
The leadership change at ISCI occurs at a turbulent moment in Iraq as the sectarian bloodshed unleashed by the 2003 U.S. invasion fades but bomb attacks pick up again.
Iraq regained some sovereignty when U.S. forces pulled out of urban centers in June, but a spate of bombings in recent weeks has undermined public confidence in local security forces.
The bombings, including two on August 19 that devastated the foreign and finance ministries and killed 95 people, also dealt a blow to Maliki’s efforts before the January election to claim credit for a fall in overall violence.
The overtly religious ISCI became a major political player in majority Shi’ite Iraq after the U.S. invasion ousted Sunni Muslim dictator Saddam Hussein.
It was founded in neighboring Shi’ite Iran, where many ISCI leaders lived for years in exile during Saddam’s rule. But despite their close ties to Tehran, an arch foe of Washington, ISCI leaders also enjoy U.S. support.
Iranian media said a ceremony would be held on Thursday outside Iraq’s embassy in Tehran and Hakim’s body would then be taken to the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf, in Iraq, for burial.
Although ISCI lost ground to Maliki’s Dawa in provincial elections last January, the well-organized and well-funded party has major clout and will be a formidable competitor in January.
ISCI has several members in top ministerial posts and has influence in Iraq’s security forces.
ISCI derives much of its 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.
Ammar al-Hakim appears to have been groomed for succession, but there are other key figures in the party.
In May, Hakim entrusted top ISCI member Humam Hamoudi to repair the ruling Shi’ite alliance. One of Iraq’s two vice presidents, Adel Abdul-Mehdi, is also an important ISCI member with strong support within the party.
Additional reporting by Suadad al-Salhy, Khalid al-Ansary and Aseel Kami in Baghdad, and by the Tehran bureau; Writing by Mohammed Abbas and Missy Ryan; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Mohammad Zargham