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Powerful Iraqi Shiite leader dies in Iran

12:00 AM CDT on Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Associated Press

BAGHDAD – Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, who channeled rising Shiite Muslim power after the fall of Saddam Hussein to become one of Iraq's most influential politicians, died Wednesday of lung cancer in Tehran. He was 59.

The soft-spoken al-Hakim was a kingmaker in Iraq's politics as the head of the country's biggest Shiite political party, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, and his death left a vacancy at the helm with just five months to go before parliamentary elections.

"Al-Hakim was a big brother and a strong supporter during the struggle against the former regime, and he was a major player in the process of building the new Iraq," Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said in a prepared statement. "His death at this sensitive stage that we are undergoing represents a big loss to Iraq."

For many in Iraq's Shiite majority, al-Hakim was a symbol of their community's victory and seizure of power after decades of oppression under Hussein's Sunni-led regime. His family led a Shiite rebel group against Saddam's rule from their exile in Iran, where he lived for 20 years, building close ties with Iranian leaders.

After Hussein's fall in 2003, al-Hakim developed close ties to Americans while maintaining his alliance with Tehran, judging that the U.S. military was key to the Shiite rise. Among Iraq's minority Sunnis, al-Hakim was deeply distrusted, seen as a tool of Shiite Iran.

His death comes at a time of political upheaval among Iraq's Shiites. The political alliance that al-Hakim helped forge and that has dominated the government since the first post-Hussein elections in 2005 has broken apart, pitting a coalition led by al-Hakim's party against another led by al-Maliki for the Jan. 16 vote.

Al-Hakim was born in 1950 in Najaf. His father was Grand Ayatollah Muhsin al-Hakim, among the most influential Shiite scholars of his generation. Al-Hakim was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2007 after tests at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

The Associated Press

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