Salim Described by Colleagues as Selfless
Assassinated Governing Council Head 'Had a Moral Authority That No One Had'
By Sewell Chan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 18, 2004; Page A09
BAGHDAD, May 17 -- Izzedin Salim had no idea when his fellow members of the Iraqi Governing Council chose him by acclamation last month to hold its rotating presidency for the month of May. He was in Jordan for a meeting on the training of Iraqi police and did not learn the news until he returned.
"He came back to find himself elected president," Hamid Kifaie, a spokesman for the U.S.-appointed advisory body, recalled Monday, after Salim was killed by a suicide car bombing here. "He said it was not something to congratulate him on, but a responsibility he had to fulfill."
A writer and teacher, he was often a voice of the Shiite Muslim Dawa party, a group that took up arms against President Saddam Hussein and was implicated in the December 1983 bombings of the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait that killed five people and injured more than 80. Salim had spent most of the previous 25 years in exile in Iran, after his advocacy on behalf of Iraq's Shiite Muslims landed him in prison. He wrote several books -- the first at age 18 -- and edited a newspaper.
At a news conference on May 12, Salim was asked about the abuse of Iraqi detainees by U.S. soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison.
"The American side is going to bring those who committed these excesses to justice," Salim said. "This, however, must not make us forget the major crimes that were committed against the Iraqis during 35 years of Saddam's rule, which paralleled the Nazi crimes. We are all victims of those crimes."
Salim had a small following of Shiites in his home town of Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, but was not one of the council's more prominent or influential members.
Instead, his colleagues and associates said Monday, he drew respect for his lack of self-aggrandizement and his moderation. On most days, he wore a simple gray suit and white shirt, without a necktie. He eschewed paid security guards in favor of traveling with relatives, a decision that may have increased his vulnerability.
"He was a great man," said Rajaa Habib Khuzai, a Shiite council member who wept heavily during a telephone interview. "No one could say anything against him. Everyone respected him."
"He had a moral authority that no one had," said Kifaie, the council spokesman. "He was selfless, completely selfless. . . . His life was simple. Everything was simple except his thinking."
Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. special envoy for Iraq who is leading a delegation to determine the form of an interim government to assume limited power on June 30, said he had spent three days with Salim recently in the northern city of Irbil.
"We were able to appreciate the depth of his knowledge, his broad-mindedness, his political vision, his humanity and his profound belief in the ability of the citizens of Iraq to overcome this difficult phase in the life of their nation," Brahimi said in a statement.
At the Basra branch of the Dawa party, grieving members expressed shock. Salim "was a candle in this group," said Abdul Karim Jaber Moussawi, 60. "He was a man who dedicated his life to religious struggle, and during the entire period he was in Iran."
The Governing Council has struggled for legitimacy and popular acceptance, and many Iraqis feel that anyone who serves with an entity set up by American occupation officials betrays the interests of the country.
Under a U.N. proposal, the council would be abolished on June 30 and replaced by a caretaker government. However, several council members said Monday that the assassination demonstrated the body's relevance. "All the Governing Council members are targets for the terrorists," said Mohsen Abdul Hamid, the leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni group. "This shows that the council is very important in Iraq and is doing a good job advocating for an independent Iraqi state. That's why the terrorists want to stop the council from doing what it is doing."
Salim was part of a generation of Shiites -- many of them from rural areas and the first in their families to complete secondary school or attend college -- who became politically active against the Baath Party and the Iraqi Communist Party, according to Juan R. I. Cole, a historian at the University of Michigan. They favored an Islamic government directed by lay people, and founded the Dawa party in the late 1950s.
Salim was born in 1940 or 1943 as Abdul Zahra Othman Muhammad. At the age of 18, he wrote a book on Fatima, the daughter of the prophet Muhammad. He joined the Dawa party in its early years and was trained as a teacher in Kuwait before returning to Iraq.
The Baath Party, which was dominated by Sunni Muslims and took power in Iraq in 1968, began a crackdown on Shiite dissidents, and Salim was imprisoned for several years in the 1970s. In 1980, a law was passed making membership in the Dawa party a capital crime.
In 1980, the Dawa party began a series of assassination attempts against Hussein. Party members were linked to a deadly 1982 truck bomb attack against the Iraqi Planning Ministry in Baghdad, and several members were convicted for involvement in the 1983 bombings of the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait City.
Salim fled Iraq in about 1980, and lived in Kuwait, Syria, Iran and Britain until last year, Kifaie said. For much of that time he was an official of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, an Iran-based Shiite group of Iraqi exiles that was founded in 1982. Salim also formed the Basra branch of the Dawa party, a faction that was more explicitly nationalist than the main party, according to Kifaie.
Salim returned to Basra shortly before the fall of Hussein's government in April 2003. In July, when U.S. officials created the Governing Council, they invited Salim and Ibrahim Jafari, a leader of the London-based Dawa faction, which had supported the U.S. invasion, to join.
Special correspondents Omar Fekeiki and Khalid Saffar in Baghdad and Ayad Latif in Basra contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company