The body of one of the most influential Shiite leaders was brought back to Iraq Friday amid heavy security in a state ceremony that emphasized the country's shifting politics ahead of national elections in January.
The Iraqi government declared three days of mourning after the death of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), and part of a long line of family members who fought against Saddam Hussein.
Mr. Hakim died Wednesday in Iran after being diagnosed with cancer in 2007. On Friday, his body was returned from Tehran on the Iraqi prime minister's plane. His coffin, draped in an Iraqi flag, was carried by an honor guard and met by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, President Jalal Talabani, and other senior Iraqi officials.
The black turban signifying his family's descent from the prophet Muhammad was placed on Hakim's coffin, which was covered in flowers and placed on a covered platform on the tarmac.
"We stand here on solid ground and promise we will keep our course of struggle, because we are in a sensitive period facing terrorism and dictatorship," said Prime Minister Maliki, who last week split with the coalition that included Hakim's party. The Iraqi government declared three days of mourning, which began Thursday.
Funeral procession to Najaf
Elsewhere in Baghdad, mourners marched from a major Shiite mosque to the Khathimain shrine in Baghdad, one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam. The funeral procession is to make its way south on Saturday to the holy city of Karbala and then to Najaf, where Hakim will be buried.
Hakim went into exile in Iran in 1980 after being imprisoned by Mr. Hussein. He assumed the head of SIIC, formerly known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, after his elder brother, the Ayatollah Mohammad Baqr al-Hakim, was killed in a car bombing in Najaf in 2003.
Abdul-Aziz Hakim's son Ammar is expected to take over leadership of the party, which was a major player in the opposition against Hussein.
Although part of a family revered among the faithful for their religious credentials and decades of struggle against Hussein's regime, the younger Hakim has far less stature than his father and uncle.
Last week, SIIC announced it was breaking away from the United Iraqi Alliance which Prime Minister Maliki's Dawa party belongs to, and was forming a new coalition named the Iraqi National Alliance to contest the January parliamentary elections.
Political sources say Maliki declined to join the new alliance after it refused to accept his demand that Dawa hold 51 percent of the seats, which effectively would have guaranteed him the premiership had the party won.
The move was seen as a bold gamble by Maliki, who is trying to form a more broadly based coalition with Kurdish and Sunni partners.
Group's divisive impact
SIIC has had a divisive impact in Iraq because of its championing of a separate, semiautonomous Shiite state in the oil-rich south.
The party's militia, the Badr Brigade, later folded into the party's political framework, was blamed for helping to fuel Iraq's sectarian tensions.
SIIC lost considerable political support in provincial elections in January when voters widely punished religious parties they believe have failed to deliver basic services or cut down on corruption.
Hakim's body had originally been expected to arrive at Basra airport for a larger procession to Najaf. But that route, through the overwhelmingly Shiite south, was abandoned because of security concerns.
Most attacks since US combat troops pulled out of Iraqi cities in June have been focused on Shiite targets. In addition, some political sources said, Iraqi leaders worried about the possibility of visible hostility in some areas that had previously been a bedrock of the party's support.