By AMIR TAHERI
August 30, 2003 -- WHO killed Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim?
One of the principal political leaders of Iraqi Shi'ism, Hakim, who had returned from 24 years of exile in Iran after the fall of Saddam Hussein, died in a car bomb yesterday as he was coming out of the traditional Friday prayers held at the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf.
Let us begin with a standard murder-investigation question: Who profits from the crime? In the case of Hakim, three potential profiteers-from-crime come to mind.
* The first, and possibly the likeliest, are the remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime.
For almost two decades, the Ba'athist regime regarded the late Shi'ite leader as its principal enemy. Over the years, the Ba'athists killed large numbers of Hakim's family, including his eldest brother, and tried for years to bribe many more to submit to Saddam's rule, but with no success.
By murdering Hakim, the remnants of the Ba'ath Party may be trying to extend the current violence in Iraq to the heartland of Shi'ism, which has so far been generally calm.
This is a strategy of chaos designed to raise the cost of occupation while persuading world public opinion that Iraq is running out of control. The remnants of the Ba'athists know that the stabilization of the Shi'ite heartland is the key step towards normalization in Iraq.
* A second possibility is the group of shady characters formed around Muqtada Sadr, a young Shi'ite mullah who is desperately looking for a role in postwar Iraq. Sadr's current aim is to eliminate all others who may provide the Shi'ites with leadership.
Sadr, who recently visited Tehran to win support from the Islamist regime there, has not openly challenged the U.S.-led coalition. In fact, his group has cooperated with the coalition forces to keep tension under control, especially in parts of Baghdad.
His current strategy seems to be aimed at presenting himself as the sole credible interlocutor for Tehran and Washington, at a time when Iran and the United States are becoming involved in what amounts to a proxy war in Iraq.
The young Sadr has denied any role in the murder. But suspicions that his group was involved will not go away. The murder last spring of religious leader Abdel-Majid Khoi, also in Najaf, and the assassination of several other Shi'ite clerics in the past four months have established a pattern that leads back to the Sadr group.
* The third possibility is the group of hard-line Khomeinists in Tehran who see Iraq as a battleground between their brand of "Islamic revolution" and the United States.
Having publicly warned Hakim not to join the recently created Governing Council in Baghdad, Tehran hard-liners could present his murder as a warning to others who might wish to cooperate with the U.S.-led coalition.
Iranian Khomeinists have been angered by Hakim's repeated assertions that he and his party do not regard present-day Iran as a model. Hakim's espousal of a secular and democratic system for Iraq was a serious blow to Tehran's ruling mullahs, who have always dreamed of "exporting" their revolution to other Muslim countries.
Iraq, the biggest of only three Arab states where Shi'ites are the majority, was always seen by the Khomeinists as the prime target for an Islamist revolution.
The use of a car bomb to kill Hakim also points the finger at the Lebanese branch of the Hezbollah, an organization created and financed by Iran since 1983. (It is also possible that Mafia-style elements gave a helping hand.) The Lebanese Hezbollah is the only Shi'ite group to have publicly denounced the liberation of Iraq as an "attack on Islam."
And its spiritual leader, Muhammad-Hussein Fadhlallah, has attacked Hakim and accused him of collaborating with "Zionist-Crusader enemies." Last March, the Hezbollah leader was one of few Muslim clerics who declared jihad to save Saddam Hussein's regime.
Hassan Nasrallah, the Lebanese Hezbollah's secretary-general, has declared Iraq "a battlefield" and dispatched scores of fighters there. (Some 50 have been captured by the coalition.)
BEYOND the immediate control of the most important city in Shi'ism, the current struggle for power in Najaf could have a lasting impact on how Iraq's future will be shaped.
Divided, Iraqi Shi'ites will have little chance of using their demographic strength to claim a leading role in a new Iraqi government. Their infighting could also make it impossible for a democratic pluralist system to be installed, forcing Iraq to return to the tradition of despotic rulers that began in 1958.
Hakim's tragic death increases pressure on the religious hierarchy in Najaf, especially Grand Ayatollah Ali Muhammad Sistani, the primus inter pares of Shi'ite clerics in Iraq.
Sistani faces a big dilemma. His theological position, a form of quietism, is based on the belief that clerics should not interfere in government, and that religion and politics should have distinct spaces.
Right now, however, Iraqi Shi'ites need some leadership that can only come from their religious leaders.
Iraqi Shi'ites have not had the time or the opportunity to create and develop proper political parties. And the few organized political groups that they have, are ridden with factional feuds.
Hakim's elimination from the scene is likely to destabilize the Iraqi situation in the short run. In the medium- and longer-run, however, it is unlikely to have much effect.
Hakim's political organization, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, can quickly choose a new leader, possibly another member of the family, and continue playing its role in this period of transition.
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Amir had a shortlist of three possibilities, but it is actually just two possibilities, his second and third is the same.