The Ayatollah Al-Hakim

Spiritual Leader’s Return Puts Snag In U.S. Plans For Post-War Iraq

A bomb blast Friday outside the Imam Ali mosque, the holiest shrine for Shiites in Iraq, killed at least 85 people, including Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, the spiritual leader of the Shiite Muslim majority in Iraq.

Al-Hakim died moments after he delivered a sermon calling for Iraqi unity and seeking Arab help to rebuild Iraq.

In March, he told Correspondent Bob Simon that he was ready to return to help his people if Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled - a factor that could affect the U.S. plans for a post-war democracy in Iraq.

In May, he returned to his homeland after spending more than two decades of exile in neighboring Iran.

With President Bush and Prime Minister Blair working on what happens in Iraq after the way, there's a man right next door in neighboring Iran who will want a role in Iraq's future.

His family name is al-Hakim, and his title is Ayatollah, as in the Ayatollah Khomeini, who took 52 American hostages after he overthrew the Shah of Iran.

And like Khomeini, the Ayatollah al-Hakim is a Shiite - a Muslim sect that makes up more than 60 percent of Iraq's population. He has thousands of troops just waiting to march to Baghdad, and he's beginning to feel that his exile of 23 years may be coming to an end.

Ready to return to Iraq on a moment's notice, al-Hakim has enjoyed a long relationship with Iran's revolutionary Islamic government.

"I would take any opportunity that comes. I will do my duty," he tells Simon. "If the Iraqi people need my help, then, obviously, I will offer it."

There may be no Shiite leader who has suffered more under Saddam than al-Hakim. He's the scion of a Shiite clerical dynasty. The ayatollah's father was the leader of all the world Shiites and was outspoken in opposing Saddam's rise to power. When he died in 1970, his son, the present ayatollah, took up the mantle of opposing Saddam - and Saddam began executing members of his family.

The ayatollah's headquarters in Tehran is a shrine, the walls covered with pictures of 27 members of the ayatollah's family, including his brother, uncles, nephews and cousins, who were all murdered by Saddam. Their crime: being related to the Ayatollah al-Hakim.

The Ayatollah could have made it stop by ending his opposition to Saddam. But he refused. "I used to cry over their fate and for my mother, who lost five of her sons, my brothers," says al-Hakim.

Does his mother think he's doing the right thing? "In the last letter she wrote to me from Iraq, she said, 'The path that you are following is the correct one.'"

And he follows that path with a phalanx of security worthy of a president or a pope. He's a marked man and has been for decades. Saddam tried to have him assassinated eight times.

The most recent attempt, his aides tell us, was on Ashura in the holy city of Qom, a day when men and boys flagellate themselves to mark the long and sad history of the Shiite people.

It's the anniversary of the day when Imam Hussain, grandson of the prophet Muhammad, was betrayed and martyred. It happened more than a 1,000 years ago, but for Iraqi Shiites, it's a deeply felt parable of the suffering they've had under Saddam Hussein.

"The time may be soon to go back home," says Imam Husham Al-Husainy, who fled Iraq 24 years ago and represents the ayatollah in Dearborn, Mich. He's an American citizen but came to Iran this year to pray and to prepare.

"Saddam is not only an enemy of the Shia. Unfortunately, Saddam is an enemy of the human being."

The last time the Shiites tried to make Saddam pay ended in betrayal and disaster. It was February 1991, the Gulf War was winding down and the first President Bush had an important message for the people of Iraq: "There's another way for the bloodshed to stop, and that is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside."

Bush's message was heard, and the Iraqis rose up against Saddam. Their rallying cry: Ayatollah al-Hakim. It was a classic popular uprising and it was succeeding. The rebels took over 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces, and they killed scores of Saddam's Ba'ath party officials.

But when they turned to Washington for help, Bush turned them down.

"What he was saying is that the uprising was unknown quantity for us, while Saddam Hussein is the devil we know," says Dr. Mowaffak Al-Rubaie, a London-based leader of the Shiite opposition. "We don't want to replace a devil we know with a devil we don't know."

The Americans gave Saddam the green light to use helicopter gunships to crush the rebellion. Saddam leveled the Shiite's holiest cities and shrines and summary executions became the order of the day.

The Shiites had expected nothing less from Saddam, but they'd expected much more from the Americans. "There is a deep-rooted mistrust of the United States of America by the Iraqi people," says Al-Rubaie. "The United States committed a major mistake. Iraqi people paid with their blood."

When many Americans hear the word ayatollah they may think right away of the Ayatollah Khomeini, and the taking of American hostages in Tehran. But ayatollah actually means "man of God."

"It looks like Americans want us to swap the title of Ayatollah for another title. I don't know what else it could be," says al-Hakim. "They want us to change our appearances and clothes so that we don't look like Ayatollah Khomeini. Americans should respect the culture of specific and spiritual qualities of other nations just as they expect others to respect them."

The Ayatollah al-Hakim commands the respect and the movements of 15,000 Iraqi troops armed and trained by Iran's Revolutionary Guard. And that's what really frightens the Americans.

The last thing Washington wants is an Iranian proxy in Iraq. But these Iraqi Shiites insist they are Arabs, not Persians. And they want to march to Baghdad, but the Americans have warned them not to take a step in that direction. The Americans want to run things themselves.

Will Shiites living in Iraq welcome American efforts to control the country long enough to plant the seeds of democracy?

"We will call it occupation, and we will consider it occupation, and the Iraqi people inside will perceive this "foreign army" coming to occupy Iraq," says Al-Rubaie.

But if the ayatollah and his Iraqi Shiites are wary of American intentions, Americans are at least wary of the ayatollah. He may say he favors democracy but the movement is called the Supreme Council for an Islamic Revolution.

And even if American democracy isn't a perfect model for Iraq, al-Hakim is already behaving in one very American way. He will not say whether he plans to run for president.

"Me, personally, I'll vote for Mr. al-Hakim," says Imam Al-Husainy, who thinks he would be a good leader. "He'd be loved by Kurdish, Sunni and Shia, and even though he's a Muslim Shia clergyman, but he will work evenly and equally for Kurdish, Arab, Shia, Sunni, Chaldean, Assyrian, everybody."

The suffering endured by the ayatollah will count for a lot among the people of Iraq. That is, if they ever get a chance to say anything about how their country will be run.