May 21, 2007

Iraq: Ailing Leaders and Weakening Hopes for Stability

Source: Stratfor
May 20, 2007 02 43 GMT



Summary

Iraq's most powerful Shiite politician, Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, has been in the United States since May 17 to seek immediate medical attention for lung cancer, the Washington Post reported May 19. Al-Hakim has worked closely with the United States and is also Iran's main ally in Iraq; his untimely departure from the scene could have serious repercussions for both U.S. and Iranian interests. Al-Hakim is not the only ailing Iraqi leader: Iraqi President Jalal Talabani is also ill, and Iraq's top cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is also aging -- a situation which bodes ill for future stability in Iraq.

Analysis

Iraqi Shiite political leader Abdel Aziz al-Hakim is in the United States to receive urgent medical treatment for lung cancer, the Washington Post reported May 19. The 57-year old al-Hakim -- who leads both Iraq's most powerful Shiite party, the Iraqi Islamic Supreme Council (IISC), and the ruling Shiite Islamist coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance -- is the main Iraqi Shiite ally for both the United States and Iran. His trip, which began on May 17, was made possible because U.S. President George W. Bush authorized immediate transportation from Baghdad to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas.

Clearly, al-Hakim is important to both U.S. and Iranian interests in Iraq. If he should succumb to his illness -- or even just bow out of Iraqi politics for health reasons -- it could prove disastrous for the future of U.S.-Iranian plans to achieve stability and security in Iraq. And al-Hakim is not the only Iraqi Shiite leader whose tenure is in question. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the top Iraqi Shiite cleric, was flown to the United Kingdom for a heart treatment in a similar incident in 2004; he is in his late 70s and might also be close to stepping aside.

Should Iraq's majority community lose its top political or religious leader (or both), it will only exacerbate intra-Shiite conflicts that are already getting out of hand. Here al-Hakim's role is far more critical than al-Sistani's -- al-Hakim leads a political party with its own armed wing, and is struggling to maintain its dominant position within the Iraqi Shiite political landscape.

The IISC, which was known until May 12 as the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, has been controlled by the al-Hakim clan since it was formed in Tehran in 1982 by al-Hakim's elder brother, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim (who was assassinated by jihadists in August 2003). Al-Hakim's exit from the scene could trigger an internal power struggle between his family and the other leaders within his group. His son, Ammar al-Hakim, would be a contender for the leadership -- but he is considered too young and there are other, more senior leaders within the party who would be more likely candidates. Finance Minister Bayan Jabor supervised the incorporation of the Badr Organization into the state security forces during his stint as interim interior minister, and might have their support if he were to make a bid for al-Hakim's spot. Meanwhile, Vice President Adel Abdel-Mahdi is the IISC's No. 2 leader, and is also seen as a possibility to succeed Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister.

Chaos within the party will lead to other Shiite groups -- such as IISC's main rivals, the al-Sadrite Bloc and the Fadhila party -- challenging the party for control over the oil-rich Basra region. This will only lead to further chaos within the community and the country as a whole -- making it even more difficult for Iran to control the Shiite community, just when Washington is depending on Tehran to ensure Shiite compliance with an overall settlement with the Sunnis.

And it is not just in Iraq that the Shiite leadership is either seriously ill or at an advanced age. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, at 67, reportedly is also terminally ill with cancer; his deputy, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, is 73 years old (though he is not known to be ill). Meanwhile, another key U.S. ally in Iraq, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani (a Sunni Kurd) is also suffering from a possible heart condition, and is expected to fly May 20 from the northern Iraqi city of Sulaimaniyah to Rochester, Minn., for an examination at the Mayo Clinic.

The U.S. plan for salvaging Iraq depends upon leaders who are aging -- and increasingly, ailing. Even if Washington reaches a settlement with Tehran on stabilizing the country, the implementation phase is sure to be fraught with crises.

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