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The Return of Shiite Leader Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al Hakim

May 12, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tens of thousands of people crowded into a dilapidated stadium in Basra Saturday to wait for Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al Hakim. It was the first stop of a homecoming trip after 23 years of exile in Iran.

Hakim heads a group called SCIRI, the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Five of his brothers and nine nephews were killed by Saddam Hussein, and the family is a symbol of the Shiite Muslim’s long struggle against Hussein’s rule. (Crowd shouting)

“Yes, yes, to Islam,” the crowd shouted. “No America, no Saddam.” And significantly, “Yes, yes to an Islamic republic.” (Crowd shouting)

The crowd was rowdy at times, but most people waited patiently for more than three hours on a hot day as Hakim made his way in a convoy to Basra from the nearby border with Iran. (Sirens) Pandemonium broke out when an ambulance, mistakenly believed to contain Hakim, forced its way through the crowd. A few people were hurt. When he did arrive, people pushed forward to get close. (Crowd shouting)

Hakim called for a new government based on Islamic law but representing all Iraqis, including Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Turcoman and Christians. He said little about Iran, which has reportedly helped fund his organization, only thanking the Islamic government there for providing a home to Iraqi exiles. And he referred only indirectly to the Americans and British. He said, “They should leave Iraq to Iraqis. We will bring security and rebuild the country.”

AYATOLLAH MUHAMMAD BAKR AL HAKIM (Translated): We don’t want the Islam of the Taliban, nor the Islam of extremists, nor of those who have become like Americans. We want the Islam of God’s prophet, our great Islam, the Islam of moderates.

(Shouting and crowd chanting)

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The British control Basra, but they’re trying to keep a low profile, and no troops were in view. The rally was a testimony to the huge changes here since the end of the war, especially for the Shiites of southern Iraq.

More than 60 percent of Iraqis are Shiite Muslims. They’re concentrated mostly in Basra and the south. Many Shiites hate Saddam Hussein, a Sunni who viewed Shiite political activity as treasonous. Basra’s Shiites rose up en masse in 1991 in the wake of the Gulf War, after being encouraged to believe the administration of the former President Bush would support them. It didn’t, and many were massacred.

Since then, this city of 1.5 million people has been brought almost to its knees. The repression and U.N. sanctions were damaging enough, but the war and ensuing looting have brought dangerous shortages of food, clean water and medicines. And many people are afraid and hungry. No one seems to be in charge. The collapse of the Ba’ath Party — this rubble was its headquarters — left a power vacuum that Islamic parties are already maneuvering to fill.

Ayatollah Hakim’s younger brother, Abdul Aziz, who was also in Basra, is a member of the five-person opposition steering committee, now based in Baghdad, which was set up in February with the blessing of the Bush administration. He is also in charge of SCIRI’s 10,000-man armed wing, the Badr Brigades, which reportedly gets funding and training from Iran.

The Bush administration has made clear its discomfort with potential Iranian influence via the Supreme Council and other groups, but the council’s leaders claim they’re not seeking an Islamic republic modeled on Iran, at least not for now. At the rally, the Ayatollah said he would play a religious, not political, role, but a supreme council official made it clear that they expect a major place at the table of power in Iraq.

SHEIKH ABU MOSTAFA AL-SAADY (Translated): The supreme council is a political organization and has the right to have a big share in the government since it represents the Shiites who are the majority of the Iraqi people.

(Shouting and chanting)

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Other Islamic groups are seeking influence, too, and this soccer game between British troops and the Basra Port Club is one of the results. It was organized by aspiring politicos from the Da’wa Party, which competes with Ayatollah al Hakim’s Supreme Council. (Cheers and applause)

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You think you can beat the British?

PLAYER: We shall.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This player said, “The British may have won the war, but the Iraqis would win the match,” and they did, 2-1. (Cheers and applause) The chief organizer of the game had just returned after the war from many years of exile in Iran.

MAGD RADI, Shiite Da’wa Party (Translated): We want to introduce ourselves to the British and tell them we are not hostile to them. On the contrary, we want to get to know each other, but they shouldn’t stay in our land forever. (Chanting)

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: More than a dozen Shiite parties are already vying for power in the new Iraq. This was a memorial organized by a group that follows the teachings of a beloved cleric, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, who was killed by Saddam’s regime in 1999. A Sadr official told us he’s grateful for what American and British soldiers have done, but now it’s time for them to leave. I asked the lieutenant colonel in charge of the brigade that oversees security in Basra if he’s worried about the rise of a radical Shiite movement here.

LT. COL. MIKE RIDDLE-WEBSTER, 7th Brigade, British Army: I have to confess that the Arabs are reasonably argumentative at the moment, so it’s going to be interesting to see how it develops. My view at the moment is that it’s slightly overstated. I think that it is a possibility that they will try and get some radical Shia Party going, but the experience on the ground here in Basra is that most people actually just want to get on with living their lives.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: People throughout the city said they are more concerned with security than politics at this point.

MAN (Translated): There is no security. There is no stability. We have to take responsibility for security ourselves. If there is trouble, we have no one to talk to. There is no central command. If we go talk to the coalition, they say it’s not their problem.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The war and the looting have been catastrophic for Basra’s infrastructure and people, as we’ll report in our next story. This means that for now, people’s main concern is not politics, but more basic things like security, clean water and food. Whoever can provide that will have a leg up in the political struggles ahead.