IRAQ: Q & A with Shiite religious and political leader Ammar Hakim
Ammar Hakim sits in a mansion alongside the Tigris River. The 39-year-old cleric became the head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (formerly referred to as the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council) in late August after the death of his father, Abdelaziz Hakim, from lung cancer. Now the party’s future rests on his shoulders; Hakim may also very well help choose Iraq’s next government and decide whether his rival Prime Minister Nouri Maliki gets a second term in office. Hakim has been a prominent player on the Iraqi political stage since 2007. His late father groomed him for his leadership role and recommended him as his successor.
But Hakim heads his party at a time of titanic shifts in Iraq’s political process: the main Shiite political coalition has splintered, with Hakim playing an important role in forming the new Iraqi National Alliance, while Maliki has chosen to run his own list. Iraq's political landscape has also tilted away from the religious-based politics that initially benefited the ISCI in the first national elections after the ouster of Saddam Hussein. Now, all sides, including Hakim’s, are seeking to present themselves as post-sectarian parties, concerned more with issues of stability and reconstruction than sect.
ISCI, once arguably the most influential Shiite party in the government, has suffered setbacks in the last year as it was voted out in provincial elections in January in most of southern Iraq. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Hakim floated the idea of an alliance with Maliki before or after the elections through a broader bloc, called the National Front, in order to decide on the basic shape of the next government and its policies. He warned such a partnership was necessary to avoid a lengthy period of drift ahead of the formation of the next government. He also chastised the Maliki government, which ISCI has participated in, and downplayed the prime minister’s individual achievements. Hakim also hit out at his critics who have labeled his party’s new coalition as being under Iranian influence and not going far enough in reaching out to Sunni parties. The young leader’s moves in this next stage, ahead of the American drawdown in Iraq, could very well determine his future and that of his party’s.
Can you describe the effort by ISCI’s election list, the Iraqi National Alliance, to reach agreement with other parties, even before the election, on forming a national government?
There are ongoing efforts to form this wider "national front" which can include a lot of important political parties and movements to discuss the [political] issues…. This is going to provide the different political parties the opportunity for first time in the history of Iraq to discuss and cooperate even before the elections. Iraq’s complicated reality, and the job that we need to accomplish to make Iraq’s political experiment succeed… all of this requires the formation of big blocs that will later be able to form a unified government.
If we are going to see too many blocs formed, I think the formation of the next government will be difficult. This is the problem I think facing nearly all of the countries adopting the parliamentary system. For such consideration, we paid and are still paying efforts to convince our brothers in Dawa party, the party of the prime minister to come and join this bloc.
Do you feel ISCI is weaker now after the loss of January’s provincial election and the death of your father. Has your succession sparked internal dissension within ISCI?
Considering the provincial councils elections, I believe it was a strong message directed to the Supreme Council. We learned a lot from it. We diagnosed a lot of gaps and mistakes. We drafted detailed plans to deal or to treat such gaps, and we are looking ahead for the Supreme Council to regain its position and to be stronger even than it was before.
The commitment of ISCI in taking the moderate path in addition to the wide support and the sympathy of the people over the loss of the late Mr. Hakim has been very beneficial to ISCI.
None of ISCI leaders accepted nominating themselves [to succeed Hakim]. In spite of the fact, it was open for everyone to nominate themselves. Also I said I am going to support that [nomination process]. All of what happened showed that ISCI is enjoying or living in the best environment and healthiest conditions…
How do you view Maliki’s decision to form his own list of candidates?
Firstly, we respect their decision and it’s the full right of any political entity to decide what they want… Actually, we were blamed by a lot of our allies — why is ISCI insisting all the time to bring the list of the prime minister to this alliance.
Why do you believe it’s important for Maliki’s list, along with other groups, to join with your Iraqi National Alliance in a formal or informal coalition before the election?
We believe the formation of bigger blocs will prevent problems from happening later on and will help to create the psychological and political stabilization needed when we are passing through such difficult circumstances.
How do you rate Maliki’s government?
We believe there were very important steps taken by the prime minister. Of course, they were not achieved by the efforts of one individual [alone] but happened because of joint efforts, unlimited support, extended from the different political powers, especially the forces of the United Iraqi Alliance [the previous ruling coalition which included both Maliki and ISCI]….
At the same time, there were a lot of mistakes made. These were tracked by the parliament because they are the side observing the [government’s] performance. Some believe the government failed to provide a clear plan and vision for its performance during the last four years. They also think that a lot of positions and decisions were taken as reactions. There were large amounts [of money] spent to achieve projects. The money was spent. But there were no projects achieved… . These are not media pronouncement. These are facts and figures being discussed among officials. This is one of the problems on a long list that we are facing.
What do you say to people who view your list as not inclusive enough of the country’s Sunni population?
We have a national program and opportunities for all. But if we opened our doors and gates and if some people didn’t make firm decisions to join, they should be asked why are you not joining… We have put out a national program and extended the invitation to all.
How do you respond to whispers among people that that your election list, the Iraqi National Alliance was put together with assistance from Iran?
This alliance is an Iraqi national alliance. Iraqi national powers are participating in it. It was formed based on the Iraqi interests,… It might be welcomed or rejected by any of the [neighboring] countries. The positions of those countries has nothing to do with this alliance’s formation or tasks.
— Ned Parker in Baghdad
Photograph by Usama Redha / Los Angeles Times