August 27, 2009 / 9:22 AM / 9 years ago

Shi'ite cleric's death shakes up Iraq politics

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq declared three days of mourning on Thursday for a leading Shi’ite cleric and politician whose death may intensify political instability before national elections.

People carry the coffin of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, one of Iraq's most powerful Shi'ite leaders, during a funeral ceremony in Tehran August 27, 2009. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi

A funeral for Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who headed the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI), was to be held in Baghdad on Friday after his body is returned from Iran, where he died on Wednesday while being treated from lung cancer, said Jalal al-Din al-Sagheer who heads the ISCI bloc in parliament.

A smooth succession will be important because the party, whose once formidable support among Iraq’s majority Shi’ites has waned in the past year, prepares for January’s elections in which it could face off against Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

A major partner in Maliki’s Shi’ite-led coalition government and until recently an unquestioned ally, the ISCI announced days before Hakim’s death the formation of a new Shi’ite alliance that does not include Maliki’s Shi’ite Dawa party.

Hakim was born in 1950 and became leader of one of Iraq’s most powerful Shi’ite Muslim political parties in 2003 when his elder brother was killed in a car bomb. He is expected to be buried in Iraq’s Shi’ite holy city of Najaf.

Earlier in the day, mourners carried Hakim’s coffin above their shoulders outside Iraq’s embassy in Tehran in a ceremony attended by former Iraqi prime minister Ibrahim Jaafari and Iranian officials including Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki.

A crowd of mourners later gathered in the Iranian city of Qom, a center of Shi’ite learning, to view Hakim’s coffin.

The Iraqi government declared three days of official mourning beginning on Thursday, state al-Iraqiya TV reported.

Hakim’s death could thrust ISCI into a succession struggle even though his son Ammar has been groomed to take over.

Ammar, in his late 30s, has been named interim chief, but top ISCI clerics are expected to announce a permanent leader soon.

Hakim’s death fuels uncertainty just as Iraq struggles to recover from major attacks that have undermined public confidence in the government.

Maliki is staking his political future on improving security after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from urban centres.

From Najaf, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric, added to the expressions of sorrow that have poured in from across Iraq’s political and religious spectrum.

“His eminence Sistani received news of the death of cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim with great sorrow after long years of sacrifice serving his people and nation in order to save it from injustice and dictatorship,” his office said in a statement.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in a statement carried by Iranian news agency IRNA, said of Hakim’s death:

“It is a big loss for the Iraqi nation and government and for the Islamic Republic of Iran it is a painful loss.”

Reporting by Khalid al-Ansary, Suadad al-Salhy and Waleed Ibrahim; additional reporting by Tehran bureau; writing by Missy Ryan; editing by Robert Woodward

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