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As Hakim's funeral ends, many Shiites see a power vacuum
( 2003-09-03 11:15) (Washingtonpost)

With a river of mourners stretching more than a mile, the three-day funeral for Ayatollah Mohammed Bakir Hakim ended in his home town today in a ceremony steeped in the symbolism of 13 centuries of Shiite Muslim martyrdom and marking the passing of power to his younger brother.

A shiite cried in top cleric Hakim's funeral.     [Washingtonpost]
The ascent of Abdul Aziz Hakim, a lesser religious figure best known as his brother's lieutenant, underscored the difficulties ahead as Iraq's majority Shiites struggle to assume power in a country where they were long brutally oppressed. Despite a show of strength here today, they face a vacuum of authority, with political leaders who lack religious standing and religious leaders who eschew politics. Caught in between are U.S. officials directing the five-month occupation who acknowledge Shiites as the key to the country's stability.

"As a religious man, Najaf will produce another person of the stature of the martyred sayyid," said Sheik Abu Ali Mansouri, a cleric in a white turban looking out at the tumultuous scenes of grief, complaint and rage under a relentless sun. "As a political man, no one can compete with him. He represented both political and religious authority."

The 64-year-old Hakim, killed with scores of others after Friday prayers at the Imam Ali mosque, was a crucial interlocutor between Shiites and U.S. officials. Recognized as an ayatollah and an opposition leader, he spent more than two decades in exile, then returned to Najaf in May at the head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. With his blessing, the group -- the best-organized Shiite party -- entered the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, with his brother serving as its representative.

In words and symbols, the march of tens of thousands of mourners that began in Baghdad was as much political rally as funeral procession. In a eulogy, the younger Hakim blamed U.S.-led forces in Iraq for his brother's assassination, as he did in Baghdad on Sunday.

"The occupation force is responsible, in essence, for the sacred blood that was shed in Najaf -- that of Hakim, and the fine group of people who were near him, and these lives and the lives that are lost every day in various parts of Iraq," he said.

Echoing the sentiments of banners along the march, he vowed the group would follow his brother's lead.

"You defended the rights of all groups and you succeeded to a large extent in achieving the unity of Iraq's people. You strove for a free, stable Iraq. You were adamant in your efforts that Iraq should be free, that the occupation should leave, that Iraq shall be as God wishes it to be," he told thousands of mourners. "This was your path and we shall continue on it."

Mourners eager to bless his brother's ascension shouted, "Yes, Hakim!"

Today's march begin in Kufa and ended a few miles away in Najaf, both cities resonant in Shiite history. Ali, the son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad who Shiites believe was his rightful heir, was killed in Kufa in 661 by an assassin wielding a poisoned sword. Following his wishes, his supporters tied his body on a camel and buried him where it stopped. That site was Najaf, where the gold-domed shrine said to house his body remains one of the holiest sites to the world's 120 million Shiites.

In Kufa, under temperatures that hit about 105 degrees by mid-morning, teams of mourners prayed and chanted, beating their chests in ritual mourning and then pointing at another group to take up the song. Men whipped themselves with chains, the metal catching the sun's glint. Some broke into tears, driving women on the sidelines to wail and ululate.

"This is a day of grief, tragedy and catastrophe for all Islam," said another cleric, Sheik Abbas Kinani.

Hakim's coffin, draped in black and green banners and oversize portraits of him, was carried in a yellow flatbed truck that crawled miles through a street thronged with mourners. But the coffin was symbolic, as Hakim's body was never found. A black turban, the only distinguishable relic of clothing found near the shrine where he was killed, was placed on the coffin, which was flanked by police and armed militiamen of the Badr Brigade. The brigade, the military wing of Hakim's group, provided heavy security along the route.

By early afternoon, the coffin arrived at the shrine of Ali, whose tan brick wall was blackened in the attack. A loudspeaker atop the mosque broadcast a refrain: "There is no power and no strength except in God."

The truck stopped at the shrine's turquoise-tiled portico. Surging crowds were beseeched by loudspeaker to make way so the coffin could enter, to no avail. "There is no god but God," men shouted, as they broke through rickety police barricades. Others surged toward the mosque's two-story-high varnished doors, closed since the attack. The truck soon departed, and the coffin was quietly buried in 1920 Revolution Square, in a cemetery containing Shiite martyrs of an uprising against British rule.

In religious Shiite politics, symbolism remains paramount, much of it revolving around Ali's son Hussein, who was killed with his outnumbered followers, many dying of thirst, on a battlefield in 680 near the southern city of Karbala. In postwar Iraq, that symbolism resonates deeply. Moqtada Sadr, a junior cleric and one of Hakim's rivals, draws much of his street support from the memory of his father, a beloved grand ayatollah who was assassinated in 1999.

Today, Hakim's martyrdom was made even more visceral by his death next to the shrine of Ali. In life, he was an ayatollah. In death, some bestowed on him the highest rank possible -- a grand ayatollah known as a marja.

"He represents a symbol of the murder of Hussein," said Kinani, the sheik, as recitations of the Koran spilled over streets.

Talk of who might be responsible for the bomb blast on Friday coursed through the crowds that arrived at the funeral today. Many have accused loyalists of Saddam Hussein, Sunni Muslim militants from abroad or a combination of both. Vows of vengeance mixed with messages of suffering. "All the Baathists must know we will take revenge," mourners chanted. "They must know we are all Hakim."

An unsigned leaflet on columns swathed in black warned of "vile plans" to inflame Shiite divisions and kill influential clerics. It urged Shiites to kill Sunni extremists and "all members of the previous regime and those who cooperated with them." A nearby poster said the "Iraqi faithful await for a signal" from the most senior religious leaders.

Abdul Aziz Hakim will face demands for a more assertive Shiite leadership. In towns along his brother's funeral route, some spoke of a sense of siege and even frustration with the clergy, whose most senior leaders have eschewed politics as beneath their spiritual calling.

Hakim was an exception, but his brother, as a junior cleric, lacks his standing as a religious leader. In the turbulent and emotional fervor at today's funeral, many were willing to give the younger Hakim a chance.

But others looked at a landscape riven over the role of religion in political life and the degree to which Iraqis should engage the U.S. occupation. Frustration appears to be rising and, in his eulogy, Hakim staked out opposition to U.S. policies, a position claimed earlier by Sadr and other lesser-known but sometimes more virulent clerics.

"As a political leader, he is qualified, but as a religious leader, people must to go to other ayatollahs," said Abdel-Ridd Mukarram, a 43-year-old cleric passing the shrine as people kissed and glided their hands over its walls for blessing.

He looked out at the street, its banners of Imam Hussein and the slain Hakim stitching together a centuries-long narrative of sacrifice. A poster behind him read, "Vengeance for the clergy."

"Today there's freedom and at the same time, there's chaos," he said, his white turban framing a salt-and-pepper beard. "It's a miracle that Iraqi people can exist in the middle of chaos and still live their lives."

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