According to the lunar calendar date, this week coincides with the 16th death anniversary of senior Iraqi Shia Muslim cleric and political leader Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, who was assassinated in 2003 in the holy city of Najaf. He had devoted most of his life to opposing the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein and uniting the Iraqi nation.
Al-Hakim, who headed the Supreme Council of the Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), probably the largest opposition group in the country, wielded enormous influence over Iraqi religious and ethnic groups.
He made strenuous efforts to advocate interdenominational pluralism and democracy. He was arrested and tortured for by Saddam’s forces in 1972. Five of his brothers and another dozen or so relatives were killed by the Baathist regime.
He was said to be deeply impressed by the ideals and dynamic thought of Imam Khomeini, the late founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In May 2003, he returned to his homeland after spending more than two decades of exile in neighboring Iran. On August 29 that same year, al-Hakim had just finished a sermon on the need for Iraqi unity and was emerging from the shrine of Imam Ali (PBUH) when he and 124 others were targeted by a massive car bomb explosion.
Just weeks before his martyrdom, al-Hakim, a moderate and pragmatic politician, had spoken out against the US occupation of Iraq.
“They offered the justification that they came in the name of liberation, but now they are an occupying force,” he said in June 2003, adding, “If the people lose their patience, there will be social uproar.”
He earlier said during a press briefing in Najaf, “Our Arab and Islamic world is full of dictatorships. This dictatorship [of Saddam Hussein] trampled upon all rights of the Iraqi people, even the simple ones, interfering in all the details of the Iraqi people, even inside their home. The Iraqi person became a slave.”
“We have some freedom, but it is not complete. When we want to move, we find foreign troops and limitations on our movement. To reach our goals, there must be a system based on the will of the Iraqi people, elected by the Iraqi people. The system must respect the make-up of the Iraqi people. Shias have their cultural specifics; Kurds, and Turkmens, Sunnis, and Christians have theirs.”
The senior cleric was angry with the US’s betrayal in 1991, when the then-President George H. W. Bush gave the green light for Saddam’s Republican Guard to curb a massive Shia uprising. Tens of thousands were believed to have been slaughtered in that crackdown in Iraq’s south.
Al-Hakim’s brother, Abdel-Aziz, headed the SCIRI’s military wing, the Badr Brigade, Iraq’s biggest Shia Muslim paramilitary group, which undertook uprisings against Saddam and opposed any foreign meddling in the country in recent decades. Badr Brigade forces came to prominence again in 2014 fighting the the Takfiri Daesh terrorist group.
Following his martyrdom, thousands of mourners turned at the funeral service for Ayatolla al-Hakim in a powerful show of defiance against the US-led military occupation. Crowds of people marched through the city of Najaf, demanding the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq.
The mourners held the invasion forces responsible for the assassination of al-Hakim. Some believed forces loyal to Saddam Hussein were responsible for the attack.