Thousands of Iranians prayed and wept Thursday during a memorial for Iraqi Shiite Muslim leader Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the start of a two-day tour of mourning that will take his body through his country's Shiite heartland, apparently in hopes of rallying large crowds of supporters.
Usually Islamic tradition requires the dead be buried swiftly, preferably within hours of their death. But in the case of al-Hakim — one of Iraq's most influential power brokers, who died Wednesday of lung cancer — there may be political considerations.
Iraq is holding parliament elections in January in which there will be stiff competition over the Shiite vote because of a split among Shiite parties. In regional elections this year, al-Hakim's party the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council did poorly in many parts of the south, so a show of masses of supporters turning out to mourn al-Hakim could boost the party.
After Thursday's ceremony in Tehran, al-Hakim's body was driven to the Shiite shrine city of Qom, south of the Iranian capital, for another memorial. From there he was expected to be flown to Baghdad to be taken to the holy city of Najaf, perhaps with a stop in at least one other Shiite city.
The memorials in Iran reflected al-Hakim's deep ties to the country, where he spent 20 years in exile leading a guerrilla force fighting Saddam Hussein's rule. After Saddam's fall in 2003, he returned to his homeland to become leader of Iraq's biggest Shiite party and a symbol of the resurgence of Iraq's Shiite majority. But many in Iraq — particularly Sunnis — were deeply suspicious of his close ties to Iran.
Thousands of Iranians and Iraqi expatriates marched in a procession carrying al-Hakim's coffin from the Iraqi Embassy in Tehran to a nearby mosque, as marching bands played. Iran's foreign minister as well as al-Hakim's son and political heir Ammar attended the ceremony.
Many women wept, and mourners held up photos of al-Hakim as well as of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
"This is a big loss for Iraqi nation and government and a painful one for Iran," Khamenei said in a statement of condolences. "His services to his country in forming a national government before and after Saddam's fall are unique and unforgettable."
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called al-Hakim "a great scholar" who "spent the blessings-filled years of his life ... in the path of exalting Islam and fighting ignorance, dictatorship and brutality."
In Iraq, hundreds gathered near al-Hakim's office and his family home in Najaf, 160 kilometers (100 miles) south of Baghdad. Condolences were painted on black banners that hung from the main streets in Najaf, as hundreds more Shiites began arriving in the city in anticipation of al-Hakim's funeral.
A grave was being dug next to that of al-Hakim's brother, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, who led the party until he was killed in a car bombing in Najaf soon after the brothers returned to Iraq in 2003.
Iraqi Shiite Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi and Iranian state TV said al-Hakim's body would be flown to Iraq on Friday morning for burial in Najaf. There were reports his coffin could pass through the holy city of Karbala, near Najaf, and possibly Basra, the biggest city in Iraq's Shiite heartland.
Meanwhile, condolences for al-Hakim continued to pour in.
The top two U.S. officials in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno and Ambassador Christopher Hill, praised al-Hakim for "contributing to the building of a new Iraq" — a sign of how the cleric cannily balanced his ties between the United States and Iran, bitter rivals in the Mideast.
Iraq's most revered Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said al-Hakim's life was "full of contributions, including serving his religion and homeland and ridding his people of suppression and totalitarianism."
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said "his death at this sensitive stage that we are going through represents a big loss to Iraq."
Al-Maliki, head of the Shiite Dawa party, has been al-Hakim's ally in the Shiite coalition that has dominated Iraq's government since the first post-Saddam parliament elections in 2005. But the coalition has split ahead of January's parliament election, with al-Maliki's Dawa on one side and a smaller grouping of Shiite parties led by al-Hakim's SIIC on the other.
One member of the SIIC's new alliance, radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, appealed for support from al-Hakim's ranks.
"I pledge to all the followers who lost their caring leader to be their brother and partner in this life and the hereafter as long as they seek to liberate Iraq and the unify its people and land and want sovereignty for its people and government," said al-Sadr, a strong opponent of the U.S. presence in Iraq.
Al-Hakim's death could severely weaken his party, raising concerns that some of its supporters could turn to more radical figures like al-Sadr and otherwise stir up the already uncertain politics among the Shiite community. In recent months, the 59-year-old al-Hakim had turned over most political duties to his 38-year-old son, Ammar, who became SIIC's de facto leader after his father was diagnosed with lung cancer in May 2007.
The SIIC's losses in last January's provincial elections in the Shiite south were seen as a sign some Shiites were turning away from religious parties and as a show of discontent that the party had failed to deliver its promises in local government.
AP correspondent Bushra Juhi in Baghdad contributed to this report.