Iraq Shi'ite leader reaches out to political rivals

Ammar al-Hakim takes reins of Iranian-backed Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council amid skepticism about whether he can hold organization together.

Ammar al-Hakim 248.88 (photo credit: )
Ammar al-Hakim 248.88
(photo credit: )
The son of the late leader of Iraq's largest Shi'ite political party acknowledged setbacks and reached out to political rivals Tuesday as he formally replaced his father at the party's helm. Ammar al-Hakim, 38, takes the reins of the Iranian-backed Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council amid skepticism about whether he can hold the organization together as the group struggles to regain its footing ahead of January's parliamentary elections. His father - who died last week of lung cancer in Teheran - was a symbol to the Shi'ite political majority of the victory over Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led regime, but the party did poorly in many parts of the south in local elections earlier this year due to a backlash against religious parties and anger over poor services. Al-Hakim's death has the potential to further weaken his party, raising concerns that some of its supporters could turn to more radical figures like anti-US cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and otherwise stir up the already uncertain politics among the Shi'ite community. The 59-year-old al-Hakim had turned over most political duties to Ammar after he was diagnosed with lung cancer in May 2007 and his will decreed that Ammar succeed him. "Some setbacks occurred for the alliance specially during the provincial elections and we will work to move past them and to have a policy of openness with Arab and Islamic countries like Iran and Turkey," Ammar al-Hakim said at a press conference Tuesday, after the party's Shura Council confirmed him as the leader. In a veiled appeal to Prime Minister al-Maliki, he urged other parties to join the new Iraqi National Alliance that includes SIIC and al-Sadr's followers but excludes al-Maliki's Dawa party, setting up the possibility of a split Shi'ite vote. "I call for the formation of a wide national front to include all lists and blocs and alliances of national powers in our country," he said. "With solidarity we can revive the political process and confront the big challenges inside Iraq and at regional level." The late al-Hakim carefully balanced ties with the United States, who helped bring the Shi'ites to power with the 2003 invasion that ousted Saddam, and his benefactors in Iran. Ammar al-Hakim has pledged to continue his father's policies but the US military's plans to withdraw from the country by the end of 2011 have raised questions about whether Iran will move to fill the vacuum. The Iraqi government, meanwhile, announced it has rescheduled a nationwide census for Oct. 24, 2010 after postponing the survey to allow time for ethnic and political tensions to settle. The population count, which had been scheduled for this October, was meant to resolve the controversies over the size of the country's religious and ethnic communities. It also had implications for decisions over the fate of the oil-rich area of Kirkuk as well as the budget allocation for the self-ruled Kurdish region in the north. A committee comprising central government representatives and Kurds will be set up to find a solution to the differences over holding the census in disputed northern areas, spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said. Many lawmakers had called for the census to be postponed, arguing that war has caused radical change in the sectarian makeup of many areas and the results could ignite new tensions. Violence between Shi'ites and Sunnis drove the country to the brink of civil war before it ebbed in 2007, and US and Iraqi officials have expressed fears that Arab-Kurdish conflicts over land and oil in the north could ignite a new round of bloodshed. It would be the first nationwide census since 1987. A count conducted 10 years later excluded the three province that comprise the Kurdish region. The 1997 census put the country's population at more than 26 million.