Ammar al-Hakim’s attempt at rebranding not totally convincing
Veteran Iraqi Shia leader Ammar al-Hakim, a long-time protégé of Iran, has stepped down from the hereditary leadership of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), setting up a new party, the National Wisdom Movement, that revolves around his personality cult.
The new party seems to distance itself — on paper at least — from everything Hakim stood for since the start of his political career after the downfall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. It shuns the “militarisation of Iraqi society” although for the past 14 years, Hakim’s party-affiliated militia, the Badr Brigade, was a prime pillar of militia rule and sectarian conflict in Iraq.
His new party aims at making Iraq “a bridge of understanding rather than a battlefield for conflict,” although Hakim’s men famously dragged Iraq into sectarian warfare, striking at other Shia parties and traditional enemies in the Sunni community, punishing them collectively for having produced Saddam. Finally, Hakim claims that the Wisdom Movement is not an all- Shia party, welcoming membership from Iraqi Sunnis, Christians and ethnic Kurds.
Interestingly, sources close to the 46-year-old politician are trying to portray his departure from the council and establishment of the Wisdom Party as something of a soft defection from Iran. This is a line that even the Saudi daily al-Hayat is buying, claiming that Hakim’s associates are rebranding him within the Arab world as a moderate cleric who is becoming acceptable within the Sunni world, hinting that he has burned his bridges with Tehran.
Anybody familiar with Hakim’s history takes that argument with a pinch of salt. Born in Najaf, widely considered the holiest city in Shia Islam, he is a member of the third generation of the powerful Hakim family, which claims its lineage to the Prophet Mohammad.
His grandfather Grand Ayatollah Muhsin al-Hakim was a renowned scholar and leading authority in the Shia community from 1961 until his death in 1970. Six of his sons were killed at the orders of Saddam. One of them, Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, fled to Iran in 1980, one year after the Iranian Revolution. With Iranian funds and manpower, he helped found SCIRI to fight the Iraqi Army during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. It openly called for the overthrow of Saddam and for installing a Shia theocracy in Baghdad, a dream that became possible with the 2003 US invasion.
Muhammad Baqir was assassinated in Najaf the same year and leadership went to Ammar’s father, Abdul-Aziz, who followed the same line until 2009, when he died from lung cancer at a Tehran hospital.
Abdul-Aziz briefly served as president of the post-Saddam US-appointed Governing Council. During his tenure, SCIRI controlled the Iraqi Ministry of Interior, setting up death squads that roamed the streets of Baghdad, spreading terror among Sunnis and rival Iraqi Shias. John Pace, then the UN human rights chief, said hundreds of Iraqis died under torture in Abdul-Aziz’s dungeons or were executed by Iraqi police at the orders of the Hakim family.
Ammar al-Hakim grew up with that family baggage and tried hard to measure up to his ancestors. He was raised in Tehran and speaks flawless Persian, having studied at private Iranian schools and graduated from the Islamic Arab University in Qom, where he went on to teach Arabic, logic, philosophy and Islamic jurisprudence for many years.
He was never trained as a cleric but put on Islamic garb when he assumed leadership of his family in 2009, running by the honorific Shia title of “Sayyed.” He was never a marja (or source) as his grandfather had been, nor an ayatollah — meaning he never had the authority to issue religious decrees or speak on matters of sharia.
Hakim commands a parliamentary bloc, although he is not a member of parliament, and several important seats in the cabinet of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi such as the ministries of interior, oil and human rights. The bloc had the majority of MPs until 2010.
Over the past eight years, Hakim has steadily tried to retire ranking Shia figures in SCIRI, namely associates of his father and uncle, replacing them with a younger generation who owed him direct allegiance.
Three of them decided to complain, travelling to Tehran to take up the matter with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. They were former MP Jalal al-Din al-Saghir, ex-Immigration Minister Mohammad Jassem Khodayyir and Bayan Jabr, the famed interior minister accused of sectarian killings in 2005-06.
Weeks later, Hakim walked out on the entire party, setting up the Wisdom Movement, which many say is a clear break with his Iranian past, aimed at rebranding himself as an independent pan-Iraqi leader.
Others argue that the move is merely a stunt by Hakim in full coordination with the mullahs of Tehran, aimed at giving him a facelift ahead of the elections next April.
Hakim went too far in cuddling up with the Iranians, winning many allies among more mainstream Shia leaders such as Muqtada al-Sadr, a traditional enemy of the Hakim family, and among Muslim Sunnis, who never forgave him or his men for taking up arms against Iraqi soldiers during the Iran-Iraq War.
Many viewed him as more Iranian than Iraqi and constantly wrote him off as a stooge of Khamenei, something that ruined Hakim domestically and that he has systematically been trying to change to look and sound more Iraqi.