Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim held together Iraq's biggest Shiite political party as the ultimate middleman: maintaining his deep ties with Iran and cultivating his new alliances of necessity with America.
His death Wednesday in Tehran now forces questions about whether any single figure can occupy the same tricky ground — or even still needs to — as U.S. military forces draw down and Iran is engulfed in its worst internal unrest since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
With parliamentary elections just five months away, the real struggle among Iraq's majority Shiites will have little regard for views in Washington or Tehran. It's about whether al-Hakim's son — young and untested — inherited enough political wits to keep the empire from splintering and potentially reordering the Shiite leadership constellation.
"It's going to be an uphill battle for him," said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, a researcher of political affairs at Syracuse University.
Any serious chips in al-Hakim's bloc, Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, could introduce new political voices in Iraq's Shiite heartland and possibly require some retooled policies by both the White House and Iran's theocracy.
But it also could open some new possibilities.
Cheney arranged care for patient
The soft-spoken, chain-smoking al-Hakim was widely viewed — even among some Shiite allies — as too cozy with Iran after calling it home for nearly two decades. His family maintained a political base in Tehran, returning to Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein in the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Al-Hakim even spoke Arabic with a touch of a Persian accent.
Al-Hakim was diagnosed with lung cancer in May 2007 after Vice President Dick Cheney, who visited Baghdad that month, arranged for him to be examined at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. However, al-Hakim chose to undergo treatment in Tehran, traveling there from time to time from Baghdad for chemotherapy.
If some Shiites worried about his leanings toward Iran, the criticism of al-Hakim was far stronger among the minority Sunnis. They denounced al-Hakim's support for Shiite self-rule in southern Iraq as a plot to hand Tehran control of Iraq's oil-rich south and accused al-Hakim of orchestrating attacks against Sunnis during the sectarian war.
Sunni groups will now be closely watching al-Hakim's 38-year-old son and successor, Ammar, for any potential offers of political reconciliation and pacts. The younger al-Hakim has been the de facto leader of the Supreme Council for months as his father withdrew from public duties as his lung cancer progressed.
Already some Sunni groups have forged political links with the Supreme Council, helping to expand its base and political reach before the elections.
But it's U.S. policy makers who could face the more difficult challenges in the potential shifts in Shiite politics, some analysts predict.
'Power-wielders in Iraq'
U.S. outreach to Shiites has been largely built around contacts with al-Hakim's faction and selected Shiite political leaders, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. This has created strong connections at the top of the Shiite political food chain — compared with the many tribal-level dealings with Sunnis opened as part of efforts to recruit anti-insurgent fighters.
It also leaves Washington more vulnerable during changes in the Shiite hierarchy.
"The U.S. policies have been based on reliance on the important (Shiite) power-wielders in Iraq," said the researcher Boroujerdi. "So now with Hakim out of the picture, one of those players is missing."
Iran, however, has far richer and deeper links to many different levels within the Supreme Council.
This could provide some advantages for Tehran to exert more influence if the Supreme Council begins to unravel in advance of the January election. Yet the turmoil in Iran after its disputed June 12 elections may keep the nation's focus more on its own problems than the politics next door.
Shore up and expand
Mike Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, described the Iraqi Shiite views as double-edged: The major U.S. presence is a fact of the moment, and the big brother relationship with Shiite Iran next door is a fact of life.
But both Iran and the United States "are swimming in the same confusing waters" in Iraq, added Knights.
It could become a bit clearer in late September after the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Few big political moves are expected until then. There's plenty of time, though, for back-channel deal making since Iraqi politics already was being shaken up.
Earlier this month, al-Maliki was left out of a new Shiite political alliance that joined the Supreme Council with a bloc loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who remains in Iran. The new group also includes some Sunni and secular groups.
The partnership was seen as an attempt to shore up and expand the Supreme Council political foundations after suffering embarrassing defeats in provincial elections in January. Al-Maliki, meanwhile, is looking to put together a new coalition that seeks build on strong showings in the provincial vote — seen as a rejection of the religious-based parties of al-Hakim and others.
The political stakes for al-Makiki appear to rising. His government is suddenly under pressure after being blamed for security lapses that allowed suicide truck bombers to strike the foreign and finance ministries on Aug. 19, killing about 100 people in the worst attack in Iraq's capital in more than 18 months.