Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, who channeled rising Shiite Muslim power after the fall of Saddam Hussein to become one of Iraq's most influential politicians and maintained ties with both the U.S. and Iran, died Wednesday in Tehran. He was 59.
The calm, soft-spoken al-Hakim was a kingmaker in Iraq's politics as the head of the country's biggest Shiite political party, and his death from lung cancer left a vacancy at the helm with just five months to go before crucial parliamentary elections.
For many in Iraq's Shiite majority, al-Hakim was a symbol of their community's victory and seizure of power after decades of oppression under Saddam's Sunni-led regime. His family led a Shiite rebel group against Saddam's rule from their exile in Iran, where he lived for 20 years, building close ties with Iranian leaders.
After Saddam's 2003 fall, al-Hakim hewed close to the Americans even while maintaining his alliance with Tehran, judging that the U.S. military was key to the Shiite rise.
The top two U.S. officials in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno and Ambassador Christopher Hill, offered condolences in a joint statement, praising al-Hakim for "contributing to the building of a new Iraq."
In Washington, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said "We were saddened to learn of the passing of His Eminence Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who has played an important role in Iraq's national history."
Political leaders from all Iraq's sects also paid respects.
"Al-Hakim was a big brother and a strong supporter during the struggle against the former regime, and he was a major player in the process of building the new Iraq," Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said in a statement. "His death at this sensitive stage that we are undergoing represents a big loss to Iraq."
Among Iraq's minority Sunnis, al-Hakim was deeply distrusted, seen as a tool of Shiite Iran. His outspoken support for Shiite self-rule in southern Iraq was seen by Sunnis and even some Shiites as an Iran-inspired plan to hand Tehran control of Iraq's Shiite heartland, home to most of its oil wealth.
But the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party expressed sorrow at the loss amid fears that those who replace him could take a harder line. "Al-Hakim's absence will create a big political vacuum at this delicate stage of Iraq's history," the party said in a statement.
His death also comes at a time of political upheaval among Iraq's Shiites. The political alliance that al-Hakim helped forge and that has dominated the government since the first post-Saddam elections in 2005 has broken apart, pitting a coalition led by al-Hakim's party against another led by al-Maliki for the Jan. 16 vote.
As al-Hakim largely withdrew from the public arena due to his illness, his son and political heir Ammar has taken the lead in his party, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council.
Ammar's relative lack of experience has raised some questions over whether he will be able to hold the organization together at a sensitive time in Iraqi politics, but party leaders have insisted they would remain united behind the al-Hakim family.
Mehrzad Boroujerdi, a researcher of Mideast political affairs at Syracuse University, predicted that a "number of contenders" will emerge seeking to exert power over Shiite affairs and challenge Hakim's son.
One possible beneficiary is anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who could gain some renewed credibility. "Things could tilt in his favor, not only with the Americans, but Iranians as well," said Boroujerdi.
Ammar announced his father's death in a statement read on his party's al-Forat television station. He said his father, "who spent decades in jihad and struggle, has joined the ranks of the martyrs." The station showed scenes from the elder al-Hakim's life while playing somber music.
Al-Hakim was diagnosed with lung cancer in May 2007 after tests at the prestigious University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. He chose to receive his chemotherapy treatment in Iran.
Al-Hakim was born in 1950 in Najaf to one of Shiite Islam's most prestigious clerical families. His father was Grand Ayatollah Muhsin al-Hakim, among the most influential Shiite scholars of his generation.
The younger al-Hakim studied theology in Najaf and married the daughter of Mohammed Hadi al-Sadr, member of another prominent Iraqi Shiite clan. After the 1970 death of his father, al-Hakim and his brothers became active in political opposition to Saddam's Baath Party.
He was jailed several times until he and most of the family fled to neighboring Iran in 1980 following a crackdown by Saddam on the Shiite opposition. In Iran, his older brother, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, founded the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the forerunner of the SIIC. Abdul-Aziz headed the group's military wing, the Badr Brigade, which fought alongside Iranian forces during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War.
The al-Hakim brothers returned to Iraq soon after the collapse of Saddam's government. On Aug. 29, 2003, a massive vehicle bomb exploded outside the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, killing Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim and more than 80 others. Abdul-Aziz stepped into the leadership of the Supreme Council.
The younger al-Hakim lacked his brother's charisma, religious standing or political acumen. But he proved a fast learner and able leader, quickly building the party into Iraq's largest Shiite political organization. He served on the leadership councils formed by the Americans. Then, in the 2005 parliament election, he forged a grand alliance of Shiite parties — backed by Iran's foremost Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, which swept up a majority.
The coalition allied with the Kurds to form a government, though it constantly struggled to keep Sunni allies.
"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 said. "We hope that all the Iraqi people and their leaders will follow his example and directions and never abandon his ideology and path."
Signs of fraying among Shiites began to show in key Jan. 31 provincial elections. The Supreme Council suffered an embarrassing defeat in the oil-rich south amid voter backlash against religious parties, while al-Maliki — head of the rival Dawa party — surged because of his popularity from security gains.
Two days before al-Hakim's death, his SIIC joined al-Sadr's followers to form a new political alliance to contest January parliamentary elections. The new Iraqi National Alliance excluded al-Maliki, making overt the new disunity among Shiites.
Al-Hakim is survived by his wife and three other children besides Ammar.
A memorial service was to be held Thursday in Tehran, then the body was to be flown to the southern Iraqi city of Basra and taken by car through the Shiite heartland and Baghdad to give followers a chance to pay homage before arriving in the holy city of Najaf for burial, according to Supreme Council officials.
Associated Press Writers Hamza Hendawi, Sinan Salaheddin and Hamid Ahmed contributed to this report.