Iraqi Shiite Party Leader Now in U.S. for Lung-Cancer Treatment

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 19, 2007

Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the largest and most powerful Shiite party in Iraq, is in the United States for urgent medical attention, according to U.S. officials and his organization.

His party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, refused to discuss Hakim's diagnosis, but U.S. officials said the cleric, 57, has been found to have lung cancer and is in the United States for further tests and to develop a treatment plan.

In a reflection of Hakim's stature, President Bush authorized immediate transportation to get Hakim from Iraq to the United States, an administration source said yesterday. Vice President Cheney played a role in arranging for Hakim to see U.S. military doctors in Baghdad, who made the original diagnosis, and for the current medical treatment in Houston, the sources said.

Hakim's health problem comes at a sensitive time in Iraq. Its leaders are struggling to reconcile politically, considered a key step toward ending Iraq's endemic violence. His party, until recently known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, has the most seats in the Iraqi parliament.

Hakim wields enormous political and religious authority, say U.S. experts on Iraq. "He is far more than the party's leader. He comes from one of the leading religious families in Iraq, and the family has the respect that commands and gives the party its popular following," said Phebe Marr, author of "The Modern History of Iraq."

ISCI was founded in Iran by Hakim's brother, Mohammed Bakir al-Hakim, who was assassinated in 2003 after his return to Baghdad from exile in Tehran. His younger brother then assumed leadership of the party, which now has close ties to Iran and the United States.

Hakim has been a strong advocate of the creation of a Shiite region out of nine Shiite-dominated southern provinces in Iraq. "He has been forceful in his style to ensure that the Shiites of Iraq are recognized as the main force in politics, and he has been outspoken in his support for a Shiite regional entity that could challenge the authority of the central government," said retired Army Col. Paul Hughes, who served in Iraq and helped orchestrate the work of the Iraq Study Group at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Many Sunnis and some Shiites oppose the idea of a Shiite region for fear it would further marginalize the Sunnis, prevent equitable distribution of oil wealth or contribute to the breakup of the country.

Hakim, reportedly a heavy smoker, arrived in Houston on Thursday to meet with specialists at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, U.S. officials said. His organization said in a statement yesterday that he was undergoing tests in a private hospital that has technology not available in Iraq.

"A team of specialists are giving [Hakim] the required attention to insure speedy results, so he could return to Iraq as soon as possible where he is most needed to continue serving the Iraqi people," the statement said.

The Bush administration said yesterday that it will continue to work closely with Hakim. "We look forward to work with Sayyed Abdul Aziz al-Hakim on the important issues before the Iraqi people and in working to support the Iraqi people in building a better future," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

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