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Interviews: abdul aziz al-hakim

Abdul Aziz al-Hakim is a member of the Iraqi Governing Council and the leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a large, influential, and moderate Iraqi Shiite political organization formerly based in Iran. Having long opposed Saddam and operated clandestinely against his regime, SCIRI did not interfere with the U.S.-led invasion, and it has since formed a tactical alliance with the Coalition Provisional Authority. Al-Hakim is also believed to be the commander of SCIRI's militia group, the Badr Brigade, renamed the Badr Organization for Development and Reconstruction. Al-Hakim's brother, the revered Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim, was killed in a car bombing in August 2003 outside the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf.

Speaking to FRONTLINE through an interpreter, al-Hakim emphasizes the rights of all Iraqis and explains his vision for an Iraqi government established through democratic elections. Along with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Iraqi Shiite spiritual leader, and other members of the moderate Shiite establishment, al-Hakim says that he does not favor a theocratic Islamic state on the model of Iran, but rather a constitutional democracy that respects Islam while guaranteeing political and human rights to all Iraqis. "To respect Islam is one thing," he tells FRONTLINE, "and to establish an Islamic government is something else." This interview was conducted on Dec. 3, 2003.

We don't want an Islamic government. We want a constitutional government that preserves the rights of everybody. ... To respect Islam is one thing, and to establish an Islamic government is something else.

My focus is on both the ethnic differences within Iraq and the sectarian differences. As a leader of [the] Iraqi Shia majority, what can you do or say to reduce the fears of the Sunni minority regarding Shia majority rule?

We are working hard to consolidate our contacts and our relations with all people. Included are the Arab Sunnis, with whom we have many contacts. We try to certify for them that we are with them and that we defend their rights, and defend [them] as we do defend our own rights, and we defend the rights of the whole Iraqi people.

We do not want them to be [left out]. We want them to be part of the government or the rule of this country, and they should be present. They should actively participate or contribute to all the [governing] formations and the decision making in Iraq. They should, of course; with them we share the responsibility of the [decision making].

Of course, if you look back on the history and to the stances that were adopted by our late father, and then our brothers -- anybody who was well aware of the history can agree with us.

The history shows some evidence -- for instance, the uprising in the 1920s, of Shias and Sunnis working together. But doesn't the history also show quite a lot of strain and stress between the sects?

We can't say that there has been stress between the two sects throughout history. On the contrary, there was a kind of peaceful coexistence between the Sunnis and the Shiites. There were Shiites marrying Sunnis, and vice versa. Shiites and Sunnis worked together and they went to the same schools, they went to the same universities. This [coexistence] and the relationship between the two sects is good.

But what was happening is that there was a government, of course, its members claimed that they were Sunnis when they were not. The then-government was a dictatorship that would follow a policy of sectarian persecution and national persecution.

Some of these fears may be unfounded, but they are, nevertheless, real. We have spoken with many people who fear civil war. We have spoken to Sunnis that have almost racist attitudes towards Shia. In the south, as you know, some Baathists have been murdered by Shia. You cannot underestimate the potential for civil strife, civil unrest. Don't you share some of those concerns?

In fact, we have warned against the sectarian division and fears of [civil war]. But the enemies of Iraq and the sympathizers of the ex-regime are working, are doing their best to [place] their bets that there's going to be a civil war, a sectarian war among the Iraqi people. Today the enemies of the Iraqi people are trying hard to bring about civil war.

But we have been working hard, and we will continue to prevent such a war in the future, because [of] the need for unity among the Iraqi people. As regards [to] the killing of Baathists by Shiites, I don't think this has anything to do with the Shiites or the different sects. Because a Shiite or a Sunni, a Kurd could be killed by this one, by this man or that man. Of course not all the Sunnis are the Baathists, and not all the criminals--

But there are also differences, severe differences within the Shia community. For instance, what constituency does Moqtada Sadr represent?

There are no great differences or severe differences as you said, because everybody believes in the need to end the occupation and to establish a national government and elected national government -- that there should be a permanent constitution for the country, and that law and order should be back to Iraq. We all believe in those principles. There could be some differences in the viewpoints that we adopt concerning certain details. But generally, there's no bitter divisions in this regard. As I told you, there is no general difference in the points of view that we adopt.

I ask again, what does Moqtada Sadr represent? Who are his followers?

His followers are those who followed his father before him. Of course, those are part of the Iraqi people.

You're reluctant to criticize him. But it's clear that, between him and you, between him and Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, there are great differences.

To have different points of view is something, and to have clashes is something else, because any party members could have differences. You have to differentiate here between the bitter clashes or bitter divisions, and to hav[ing] different points of view, because the bitter clashes could lead to collision and to separation.

So you describe basically collegial differences between you and Moqtada Sadr? Minor collegial differences?

Well, let's not use different terms or different terminology. And to use clashes -- the points of view. Let's be away from this.

He makes no effort to use calm rhetoric; he's quite inflammatory. He's called for the establishment of an Islamic guerilla army. Many people -- commentators, observers -- believe that you and Sistani have been very cautious in criticizing him, because he does represent a significant angry constituency within the Shia community.

This is the wrong conclusion.

One of the fears that Ambassador Bremer and this U.S. administration have is the establishment of an Islamic government in Iraq. What is the nature of the Islamic government you are calling for?

I think this is a question to be asked to Ambassador Bremer.

As regards [to] the government that we want, we don't want an Islamic government. We want a constitutional government that preserves the rights of everybody and a government that believes in the public rights; a government that works for the interest of the Iraqi people, and believes that the people are the source to derive all the important decisions that concern the future of the Iraqi people.

You have, though, called for a government that holds Islam supreme, where Islam would be the guiding force behind the government, without real separation of church and state. Am I incorrect?

The conference in London was attended by all the sects of the Iraqi people including the Shiites and the Kurds, and the Sunnis, and the secular people. They all agree that the major religion of the state should be Islam. But to respect Islam is one thing, and to establish an Islamic government is something else.

You have your own army, the Badr Brigades. How large a force are they, and what role will they play in the future of Iraq?

The Badr Brigade is no more an army, because it has turned [from] an army into an organization. Before, the major task of this brigade was to eliminate or to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein. But now that the government, the ex-regime, is no more in place, the Badr Brigade has been turned into an organization that is entrusted with keeping law and order and--


Yes. As regards [to] the actual number of the Badr Brigade, I don't know that, because there are members and there are supporters. There was a grand parade for the army or the brigade...where 100,000 fighters paraded. That number does not represent all the number. ...

Why did you oppose the American election plan?

We didn't oppose this plan. In fact, we [want] the elections to take place.

You opposed the plan that was proposed by the CPA to have caucuses in the 18 provinces, and instead called for direct elections. Why?

We have called for the election. To have elections and caucuses is something good. It's good to have each [group] have its own constituents, and its own electors, or candidates. We all agree that we should respect the opinion of our people, what people want.

Of course, we invited people to participate in this process. Then we should have a very firm basis on any of the future government that's going to be elected. This government would be properly defended and would be [controlled] by the people. ... This is the true democracy, the true meaning of democracy. We expect the Americans to deliver. The voice of the people is the foundation of the future of Iraq.

I want to ask a question about the bombing that took place before Ramadan, in which your brother was killed. Who do you believe had a motive to murder your brother?

I believe that they were the enemies of the Iraqi people, including the followers of the ex-regime or the sympathizers of the ex-regime, and the radicals or the hard-liners who are aligned with them. All the proof or the evidence show that it was them who did this crime. But investigations are still underway, and we are waiting for the [results].

Why does Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani refuse to speak to any American representatives?

There are certain traditions that should be obeyed, and I think that is why he's reluctant to [meet].


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posted february 12, 2004

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