TEHRAN, Iran, (AP) – Thousands of mourners offered prayers and wept Thursday during a memorial for the Iraqi Shiite leader Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, who spent nearly two decades in Iran during Saddam Hussein’s rule before returning to his homeland to become a key political power broker.
The ceremony for al-Hakim, who died Wednesday in Tehran of lung cancer, was attended by many Iranian officials including Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki in a sign of his deep ties to Iran.
Hundreds of Iraqi expatriates joined the procession, as al-Hakim’s coffin was carried from the Iraqi Embassy to begin a trip for burial in the holy Shiite city of Najaf in Iraq. Many women wept and waved posters of al-Hakim.
Al-Hakim’s political bloc, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, became the most influential Shiite political force following Saddam’s collapse through its broad connections — able to work with American forces in Iraq while keeping its ties to Iran as the Islamic regime expanded its influence with Iraq’s Shiite majority.
The Supreme Council suffered setbacks in provincial elections in January, but has sought to shore up its foundations with new alliances that include some Sunni groups that had been highly suspicious of al-Hakim’s Iranian links.
In recent months, the 59-year-old al-Hakim had turned over most political duties to his son and political heir, Ammar.
According to al-Hakim’s political party, his body will be flown from the Iranian city of Qom, a seat of Shiite learning about 60 miles (100 kilometers) south of Tehran, to Iraq where he will be buried in Najaf.
There was no official public mourning announced in Iran, but his deep connections to Iran were widely noted.
In Iraq, the top two U.S. officials in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno and Ambassador Christopher Hill, offered condolences in a joint statement Wednesday, praising al-Hakim for “contributing to the building of a new Iraq.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said “his death at this sensitive stage that we are undergoing represents a big loss to Iraq.” Parliament elections in Iraq are scheduled for January.
Al-Hakim was diagnosed with lung cancer in May 2007 after tests at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. He chose to receive his chemotherapy treatment in Iran.
Al-Hakim’s father, Grand Ayatollah Muhsin al-Hakim, was among the most influential Shiite scholars of his generation.
The family fled to Iran in 1980 following a crackdown by Saddam on the Shiite opposition. Al-Hakim and his brother, Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, returned to Iraq soon after Saddam’s fall. A bombing on Aug. 29, 2003, in Najaf killed Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim and more than 80 others. Abdul-Aziz then stepped into the leadership of the Supreme Council.