Rising player with a vision for Shiite Iraq
Free schools and mass weddings create support for a Shiite-run south.
Ammar al-Hakim is presiding over an Iraqi Shiite building boom. His austere Shaheed al-Mihrab Foundation has raised 400 mosques in Iraq since 2003. It's building the largest seminary here in the holy city of Najaf and opening a chain of schools. And it now has 95 offices throughout the country.Skip to next paragraph
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What's more, Mr. Hakim's foundation is winning over adherents to his party – the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) – through all-expenses-paid mass marriages along with cash payments and gifts for the newlyweds, free education and stipends at his new schools, and an array of other charitable projects such as caring for orphans and displaced families.
All of this is being done to promote ISCI's core vision: a federation of nine provinces where conservative Shiite Islam would reign.
While opponents say that such a federation among central and southern provinces would only hasten the breakup of Iraq and create a ministate where Iran would hold great sway, Hakim and his party are making great gains.
For them, the plan would bolster security for Shiites and benefit the stability of the country as a whole. And, most significant, they are winning much support ahead of a national referendum on the issue by April 2008, as proscribed by the Constitution.
In front of a crowd of about 2,000 brides and grooms at one of the foundation's recent mass weddings in Najaf, Hakim declared, "Marriage is an important cornerstone in building an Islamic society."
Hakim is the son of Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of ISCI (formerly the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq). But with his father absent in Tehran for medical treatment, he has taken over the day-to-day affairs of the party that is a principal member of the ruling Shiite coalition in Baghdad, which includes Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
His Shaheed al-Mihrab (Martyr of the Pulpit) Foundation is named after his mentor and uncle, Muhammad Baqer al-Hakim, who was killed in a bomb attack in August 2003 as he left Friday prayers at Najaf's Imam Ali mausoleum and mosque.
Its activities have also provided an opportunity to lessen the stigma suffered by the party: that it's too close to both Iran and the US, in contrast to its main rival the movement of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The party does continue to enjoy warm ties with Tehran, where it was based and nurtured during Saddam Hussein's rule. It was also in the lead among the then opposition parties to support the US-led invasion of Iraq to topple Mr. Hussein.
The Hakim foundation, as it's sometimes called, employs 7,500 people, 1,000 of whom are called "mentors." In Najaf, it has also opened the first private college for religious studies and eight so-called "model schools," where basic primary and secondary education comes with a substantial dose of Islam. There are plans to open similar schools throughout Iraq.
"There has been a massive intellectual degradation in the country," says Hassan al-Hakim, Ammar al-Hakim's cousin and the foundation's deputy chairman. Like his relative, he is dressed in clerical robes and wears a black turban, which according to Shiite religious custom is worn by sayyids, those claiming to be descendants of the prophet Muhammad.
"At the foundation we have worked to tear down the previous way of thinking and attempted to reconstruct a new one based on dialogue, respect of the other, and true Islamic teachings … thanks to God we have made great strides."
Hassan describes the role of mentors at the foundation as follows: "They work with people through mosques and other meeting places to explain to them the thinking of the marjayia and its political vision."