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Iraq’s Shiite Political Leader Dies in Iran

BY Larisa Epatko  August 26, 2009 at 4:30 PM EST

One of Iraq’s most powerful Shiite Muslim party leaders died Wednesday at the age of 59 in Iran, where he was being treated for lung cancer, reported the Associated Press.

Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, was viewed by many Shiites as the embodiment of the victory over deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Al-Hakim held no government position since Saddam was ousted, but continued to hold enormous influence in the country. His close ties to Iran, where he was exiled for more than 20 years, however, made him a distrusted figure among Sunnis and even some Shiites.

Al-Hakim’s support of Shiite self-rule in southern Iraq also was viewed by many as an Iran-inspired plan to weaken the country and give Tehran control of the oil-rich cities of Najaf and Karbala.

His death came two days after his party joined followers of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in a political alliance ahead of January parliamentary elections. In a sign of discord within the Shiite political community, the new Iraqi National Alliance excluded Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa party.

Al-Hakim’s “death at this sensitive stage that we are going through is considered a big loss,” al-Maliki said in a statement, reported Reuters.

Al-Hakim was diagnosed with lung cancer in May 2007 at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, and chose to receive chemotherapy treatments in Iran, according to the AP.

His son and political heir, Ammar al-Hakim, said in a statement read on al-Furat television that his father “who spent decades in jihad and struggle has joined the ranks of the martyrs.”

“He had a significant role in Iraq’s national unity and was working hard to narrow the different opinions among all Iraqis,” Fuad Hussein, spokesman for Kurdish Regional President Massoud Barzani, told the AP. “We hope that all the Iraqi people and their leaders will follow his example and directions and never abandon his ideology and path.”

Al-Hakim led the SIIC since 2003 after his brother, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqer al-Hakim, was killed by a car bomb, according to Reuters.

Iranian media said a ceremony would be held Thursday outside Iraq’s Embassy in Tehran and al-Hakim’s body would then be taken to the Shiite holy city of Najaf for burial.