SAMARRA, Iraq (AFP) – Rising Iraqi Shiite leader Ammar al-Hakim has extended an olive branch to rival Sunni leaders and tribes during a whistlestop tour of Sunni enclaves ahead of key provincial elections.
Hakim, 37, the eldest son and heir of Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) party, has been widely tipped to take over the reins of the powerful Shiite party which has 30 seats in parliament from his cancer-stricken father.
Under heavy guard on Saturday, Hakim and his convoy of two dozen Land Cruisers and an ambulance visited the Sunni strongholds of Samarra and Tikrit — home of executed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein — and Balad, a Shiite-majority town that saw heavy fighting against Sunni neighbour Dhuluiya.
In Samarra, a holy city that gained international notoriety after its Shiite Al-Askari shrine was bombed on February 22, 2006 by Al-Qaeda fighters, he stressed the need for unity among Iraq’s divided religious communities.
“We came here to visit the imams and also to be in contact with our people and tribes, in this province and also to be in touch with the people of Samarra,” Hakim told reporters outside the heavily-damaged shrine.
“We are here to renew the promise to continue the work of rebuilding a unified Iraq,” said the soft-spoken leader in a gesture of allegiance with local Sunni government and tribal leaders who circled him.
The mausoleum at the 1,000-year-old Al-Askari mosque in Samarra, whose famous golden dome was destroyed in the bombings and further damaged in June 2007, houses the remains of imams Ali al-Hadi and Hassan al-Askari.
Although the mosque is also important to Sunnis, the site is especially sacred to Shiites.
Many of the Shiite faithful in Hakim’s delegation on Saturday turned misty-eyed, with some weeping at the sight of the mosque that is now under reconstruction with the help of UNESCO funds.
Nobody was killed in the attack on the Al-Askari shrine but the incident sparked brutal nationwide sectarian violence that led to the deaths of thousands of people around Iraq.
The violence that pitched Sunni Arabs allied with foreign-led Al-Qaeda fighters against Shiite death squads and militias has subsided sharply since its peak in 2006.
But the distrust and animosity between Shiite, Sunnis, Kurds, Turkmen and Christians is very much alive, and violence between communities remains a part of life in Iraq.
Local leaders in Samarra and Tikrit welcomed Hakim, who is recognised as a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, applauding his calls for national reconciliation.
“Hakim’s visit has meant a lot to us, especially after the explosion at the shrine put us in a difficult position,” said Sheikh Talal Albu-Aswad, chief of the Al-Sada Albu-Aswad tribe in Samarra.
“Now things are much better due to the efforts of the Sahwa Councils, tribes, and religious clerics and all the people,” said the sheikh.
The Sunni Sahwa (Awakening) Councils are credited with helping turn the tide of sectarian violence when they joined with the American military in the fight against Al-Qaeda.
But Shiites remain deeply suspicious of the Sahwa, prompting many Sunnis to worry that Iraq’s Shiite-led government will try to sideline them further in positions of government and military power.
“We demand greater support for the Sahwa and other militias, so they will be integrated into the government,” said Sheikh Khamis Naji Jbbara, a Sunni member of the Salaheddin provincial council.
The issue is especially sensitive after a controversial provincial election law was finally passed last month, giving Hakim’s tour extra weight ahead of polls scheduled for the end of January.
Elections would allow a number of groups excluded from the political scene to join the governing process, especially tribal Sunnis and impoverished Shiites.
“The law was approved as everyone was in agreement, please nominate those who you think deserve to be nominated and can provide better services, and this is the call for all provinces,” Hakim told a meeting of sheikhs in Tikrit.