A wary US watches an exile's return

Shiite leader sent a moderate message in his speech over the weekend.

He returned to his homeland in a white Nissan SUV, engulfed by supporters, flanked by private bodyguards, and watched - from a distance - by the British Queen's Dragoon Guards. Seven sheep were slaughtered in his honor, yellow roses were tossed up high, and a few old men wiped away tears and spoke of miracles.

After 23 years' exile in Iran, Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim, head of Iraq's largest Shiite opposition group, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), crossed into Iraq this weekend and began positioning himself for a new role in this changed country.

The shape Mr. Hakim's leadership takes in coming weeks and months - and the attitude he adopts toward the foreign armies and government that created the conditions for his return - will go a long way toward determining whether Iraq becomes the secular, pro-Western democracy the US wants, or turns into one of the Bush administration's biggest concerns: an Iran-style, anti-US theocracy, and an oil-rich one at that.

Hundreds of men waited at the dusty Shalamjah border outpost to escort Hakim to the nearby city of Basra, and some 10,000 more thronged the city's stadium, cheering so loudly they could barely make out their leader's words. A few women, covered in black abayas, sat outside, holding posters of his likeness.

Hakim announced he would soon be heading back to the place where he belonged: Najaf, the holiest city for Shiites. And in his speech, he struck a moderate tone.

"The system must respect the makeup of the Iraqi people," he said. "The [new government] will be a modern Islamic regime ... to go along with ... today's world.... We don't want extremist Islam, but an Islam of independence, justice, and freedom."

Hikfi Fallah, a turbaned taxi driver, held up a green "Welcome Hakim," flag and smiled brightly. "We have been waiting for the ayatollah for too many years and we all want him to be our president," he said. "We all chant in our sleep: 'Yes Hakim! Yes Islam! Yes Freedom!' "

There seemed to be no Americans in the swaying crowds at the Basra stadium Saturday, but the US was undoubtedly straining to hear Hakim's address as much as anyone standing under the scorching sun.

About 60 percent of Iraq's estimated 24 million people are Shiite Muslims, but under Mr. Hussein's minority Sunni regime, they were violently suppressed. With the old regime out of the way, various Shiite factions are beginning to vie for, and fill, the power vacuum. Some 300 SCIRI activists, for example, have arrived in Najaf in recent weeks, and are working to restore electricity, supply medicine, mediate legal cases, and retrieve looted property.

There is more to these actions that mere benevolence. Like most other Shiite groups here, SCIRI advocates an Islamic state and opposes a US administration in Iraq. Hakim's military in exile - the Badr Brigades, said to have been trained by Iran's Revolutionary Guards and to number more than 10,000 men - have reportedly also begun moving into Iraq over the past weeks, gathering arms and setting up headquarters. Hakim himself is backed by top Iranian clerics, and his detractors worry that the Islamic Republic next door might use the ayatollah to wield control.

At the same time, SCIRI is the only significant Shiite faction cooperating with other non-Shiite opposition parties to form a new US-backed government for Iraq. Hakim's younger brother, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a SCIRI member, has been tapped to be part of the proposed interim government in Baghdad. SCIRI is considered by many to be more moderate that other Shiite factions, and within SCIRI, Hakim is considered a relative moderate.

"If the US leaves us and treats us with respect, we will have good relations, even if we are a Muslim state," says Ali Saidi, a religious Shiite leader from Al Amarah, who came to Basra to welcome the ayatollah. "Iran supported Hakim, but they can't tell him what foreign policies to adopt. He is independent."

The US seems unsure of what attitude it should adopt toward Hakim. The SCIRI has received protection and funding from Iran since 1980.

Even so, contacts between the US and the group date back more than a decade, with their shared opposition to Hussein's government and a general sense on the US side, according to one official, "that we could be worse off."

In 1999, President Clinton designated the SCIRI as one among seven Iraqi opposition groups eligible to receive tens of millions of dollars under the Iraq Liberation Act. The SCIRI turned down the money.

Administration officials have dismissed the idea that the next religious leadership to emerge here might be more radical and less malleable than they would like.

"If you're suggesting, 'How would we feel about an Iranian-style government with a few clerics running everything,' " said US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last month, "the answer is it's not going to happen."

In practice, though, the US and its British coalition partners are, so far, taking a wait-and-see attitude.

"Here we are restoring democracy - so we have to let Hakim in and listen to what he has to say," says Lt. Col. Ronny McCourt, a spokesman for the British forces in Basra. "If he starts getting the crowds hysterical, then we will have to worry. But we are hoping he speaks moderately and logically. We won't be heavy-handed, but we also will not let the situation get out of hand."

In any case, it is unclear exactly what role Hakim wants to play, and whether he might be content filling a spiritual role alongside a democratic, secular government. Two major Iranian papers reported this month that Hakim is considering stepping down as head of the SCIRI and focusing his energies only on spiritual leadership. Last month in the holy Shiite city of Karbala, the younger Hakim hinted at his brother's plans, saying a single Iraqi spiritual leader would soon emerge.

Hakim's biggest challenge to such spiritual leadership would probably come from Moqtada al Sadr, the radical young son of a former top cleric killed by Hussein, who also has designs on spiritual leadership.

Mr. Sadr's followers have been blamed for the murder last month of a pro-Western Shiite cleric, who was stabbed to death within the compound of the holy shrine of the grand Imam Ali.

As Hakim makes his way across the south of Iraq to Najaf, supporters are lining the route, holding images of the leader. When he arrives, he will pray at that same shrine before addressing his supporters. Many in this country - like many in Washington - are watching the ayatollah's progress and waiting to see where this journey ultimately leads.

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