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August 27, 2009

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Distinguished Iraqi politician al-Hakim dies

ABDUL-AZIZ al-Hakim, the scion of a revered clerical family who channeled rising Shiite Muslim power after the fall of Saddam Hussein to become one of Iraq's most influential politicians, died yesterday in Iran. He was 59.

The calm, soft-spoken al-Hakim, who died of lung cancer, was a kingmaker in Iraq's politics, working behind the scenes as the head of the country's biggest Shiite political party.

But for many in Iraq's Shiite majority, he was more than that - a symbol of their community's victory and seizure of power after decades of oppression under Saddam's Sunni-led regime.

Al-Hakim's family led a Shiite rebel group against Saddam's rule from their exile in Iran, where he lived for 20 years, building 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 United States military was key to the Shiite rise.

Political leaders from all sects offered condolences and raised concerns that his death leaves a vacancy at the helm of Iraq's biggest Shiite party with just five months to go before parliamentary elections.

"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.

He was deeply distrusted by Iraqi Sunnis.

But the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party expressed sorrow at the loss amid fears that those who replace him could take a harder line.


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