Iraq united: Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim interviewed

About the author
Anwar Raza Rizvi is a writer on Islamic / Middle Eastern affairs and a regular contributor to openDemocracy.

Anwar Rizvi: The Iraqi people turned out in large numbers on 30 January 2005 to exercise their right to a free vote. Your party constitutes a major component of the victorious Shi’a coalition, which was endorsed by the supreme Marja (Shi’a spiritual leader), Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Sistani. How crucial has his support been?

Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim was born in Najaf in 1959 to a prominent Iraqi Shi’a family, and spent twenty-three years in exile in Iran during the Saddam Hussein dictatorship. He became leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri) after the killing of his brother, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim, in a car bombing in August 2003 outside the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf. Sciri, founded in 1982 by Iraqi refugees in Iran, is the largest party in the Sh’ia-based United Iraqi Alliance which emerged victorious in the elections of 30 January 2005.

Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim: First, I wish to clarify that the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq is an institution consisting of people who believe in a democratic Iraq based on Islamic principles. It can accommodate all movements and groups that have a democratic agenda, and it has the capacity to meet the democratic needs of the nation.

Thanks to Allah, the Iraqi people have the good fortune of being led by a Marja who fully understands the situation in Iraq. He is like a fatherly figure to the Iraqi people and he is blessed with amazing foresight. We hope that with his backing and his blessings the Iraqi nation, that has made so many sacrifices in its defence and has remained so steadfast under the oppressive regime of Saddam, will rebuild itself under the leadership of its politicians, academics and religious leaders.

Anwar Rizvi: The coalition consists of many different groups including the Da’wa party which was your main political rival in the past. You withdrew your own candidate for the premiership in favour of the Da’wa candidate, Ibrahim Jafari. But is there not a danger that a governing coalition could fall apart because of the serious political and ideological difference that still exist between your parties?

Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim: The reason why people got together and rose up against the fascist regime of Saddam was because they had a common national and religious interest. Undoubtedly there are differences of opinion, but so long as the common interest remains constant the coalition will remain united. All those who wish to serve the Iraqi people with sincerity must remember to put the national interest above all other differences, whether they are inside or outside Iraq.

Anwar Rizvi: You gained an electoral majority almost exclusively on the basis of a huge Shi’a turnout. Do you see this as an issue of credibility with the Sunni minority, many of whom have already expressed doubts over the legitimacy of the election and its outcome?

Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim: God willing, history will prove that our struggles and sacrifices have always been for the benefit of the entire Iraqi nation. It is absolutely vital now that we do not undermine the great sacrifices made in confronting the brutal dictatorship. Since the elections, the Supreme Council as well as our partners in the Da’wa party have met with many Sunni leaders. Ultimately our success will depend on bringing together people from all religious and ethnic backgrounds and we shall continue to work towards that goal.

Anwar Rizvi: Probably the biggest single challenge facing the new government will be the issue of a raging insurgency that shows no signs of ending. Is the task of halting it made more difficult, if not impossible, by the mistrust that exists amongst the Sunni and the obvious support that the insurgents have in certain areas?

Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim: The root cause of this extremely serious issue lies in the previous corrupt system. The followers of Saddam, enemies of the Iraqi people, have created serious and very deep divisions within Iraqi society. We hope that the incoming government will carry out an in-depth assessment of the situation and rein in the forces of evil. It must take all possible steps to root out those who threaten the establishment of a peaceful society and build bridges with those who may have misgivings about their future in a democratic Iraq.

Anwar Rizvi: The new government will also have to deal with the aspirations of the Kurdish people. How far will the next government be prepared to go in granting the Kurds the sort of autonomy they are asking for?

Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim: The ambitions of the Kurds are well documented. Kurds are our brothers who fought for several decades and suffered greatly under the harsh rule of Saddam. It is only fair that they should demand the removal of some of the unjust laws that were then imposed upon them. I personally believe that a federal Iraq is the best solution to this issue. In all meetings with our Kurdish brothers, their biggest single demand was to have equal rights within Iraq. This demand is in total accordance with our own policies. We are working to implement this policy and we shall continue to ensure that the policy is implemented in letter and spirit.

Anwar Rizvi: The occupation of your country is now in its third year. All indications are that the majority of Iraqis would like to see an end to the occupation sooner rather then later. Yet it will take months if not years for the Iraqi security forces to gain the expertise to deal with the insurgency and provide even a basic level of security. Do you have a timeframe in your mind for the occupying troops to leave Iraq?

Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim: It is quite natural to dislike the fact that an outside force should impose itself upon them. However, to be totally rid of all outside forces will depend firstly on the success of the incoming administration. It will need to prove that it is strong enough to deal with a law and order situation that is complex and deep-rooted, and then be able to provide long-term security and stability. Once the new administration with the help of our own security forces can prove that it is able to control the situation, then surely we will have no need for any foreign troops on our soil.

Anwar Rizvi: The United States president, George W Bush, has made some belligerent statements about your neighbouring country, Iran, especially in relation to its nuclear programme. The likelihood of military action in the future cannot be totally discounted. Your own party has had very close links with Iran, and you were based in Tehran during the years of exile. How concerned are you about the possibility of Iran being attacked?

Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim: The Iraqi people have natural historical links with their neighbours. Among those neighbours, Iran shares with us a common creed. When the Iraqi nation was living under the yoke of Saddam’s rule, and when no one was willing to listen to us or open their doors to us, Iran came to our defence and helped us in a way that no other nation did.

This however does not mean that we will follow the same path as them. They have their own priorities and their own particular circumstances and we the Iraqis have ours. The Iraqi nation has a solid heritage of its own and our history bears witness to that.

It is our fervent desire to turn this part of the world into a haven of peace and stability for all nations in the region. The only message that will go out from Iraq to its neighbours will be one of love and brotherhood and not one of war. An Arabic proverb says: “if you have good intentions, you shall be rewarded with good results”.

Anwar Rizvi: You suffered personally, along with your family, under Saddam Hussein. Are you satisfied with the way his trial has been handled so far?

Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim: The trial of Saddam and his criminal associates is not related to the offences he has committed against any one person or family. They committed crimes against the nation as a whole, killing its youth and destroying its social, cultural and economic foundations. The entire nation has a right to see justice being done to them. Personally I have been very disappointed in the various delays to the trial, and I hope that the new, democratically elected government will see this task through. As the Holy Qur’an says: “surely the strategies of the Devil shall fail.”