Rising player with a vision for Shiite Iraq

Najaf, Iraq - Ammar al-Hakim is presiding over an Iraqi Shiite building boom. His austere Shaheed al-Mihrab Foundation has raised 400 mosques in Iraq since 2003. It's building the largest seminary here in the holy city of Najaf and opening a chain of schools. And it now has 95 offices throughout the country.

What's more, Mr. Hakim's foundation is winning over adherents to his party – the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) – through all-expenses-paid mass marriages along with cash payments and gifts for the newlyweds, free education and stipends at his new schools, and an array of other charitable projects such as caring for orphans and displaced families.

All of this is being done to promote ISCI's core vision: a federation of nine provinces where conservative Shiite Islam would reign.

While opponents say that such a federation among central and southern provinces would only hasten the breakup of Iraq and create a ministate where Iran would hold great sway, Hakim and his party are making great gains.

For them, the plan would bolster security for Shiites and benefit the stability of the country as a whole. And, most significant, they are winning much support ahead of a national referendum on the issue by April 2008, as proscribed by the Constitution.

In front of a crowd of about 2,000 brides and grooms at one of the foundation's recent mass weddings in Najaf, Hakim declared, "Marriage is an important cornerstone in building an Islamic society."

Hakim is the son of Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of ISCI (formerly the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq). But with his father absent in Tehran for medical treatment, he has taken over the day-to-day affairs of the party that is a principal member of the ruling Shiite coalition in Baghdad, which includes Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

His Shaheed al-Mihrab (Martyr of the Pulpit) Foundation is named after his mentor and uncle, Muhammad Baqer al-Hakim, who was killed in a bomb attack in August 2003 as he left Friday prayers at Najaf's Imam Ali mausoleum and mosque.

Its activities have also provided an opportunity to lessen the stigma suffered by the party: that it's too close to both Iran and the US, in contrast to its main rival the movement of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The party does continue to enjoy warm ties with Tehran, where it was based and nurtured during Saddam Hussein's rule. It was also in the lead among the then opposition parties to support the US-led invasion of Iraq to topple Mr. Hussein.

The Hakim foundation, as it's sometimes called, employs 7,500 people, 1,000 of whom are called "mentors." In Najaf, it has also opened the first private college for religious studies and eight so-called "model schools," where basic primary and secondary education comes with a substantial dose of Islam. There are plans to open similar schools throughout Iraq.

"There has been a massive intellectual degradation in the country," says Hassan al-Hakim, Ammar al-Hakim's cousin and the foundation's deputy chairman. Like his relative, he is dressed in clerical robes and wears a black turban, which according to Shiite religious custom is worn by sayyids, those claiming to be descendants of the prophet Muhammad.

"At the foundation we have worked to tear down the previous way of thinking and attempted to reconstruct a new one based on dialogue, respect of the other, and true Islamic teachings … thanks to God we have made great strides."

Hassan describes the role of mentors at the foundation as follows: "They work with people through mosques and other meeting places to explain to them the thinking of the marjayia and its political vision."

The sweeping victory achieved by the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite coalition that includes ISCI, in the December 2005 elections would not have been possible without the overt support and blessing of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest Shiite religious authority in Iraq. "Sistani is a crown on our heads," is a common chant at most public events and rallies organized by the party.

Not far from the foundation's headquarters in Najaf is a new two-story building, which, unlike most Iraqi government offices, is impeccably furnished and equipped on the inside. Here, 150 women ages 15 to 25 are being groomed and educated to become mentors. Students covered in traditional black head-to-toe overgarments, known as abayas, walk the carpeted hallways barefoot. The soothing sound of prayers echoes from speakers above. Each student gets a monthly stipend in addition to other benefits.

"The student will spread education and virtue among women in society according to the principles of Al al-Bayet [Shiites]" says Umm Muhammad Kashef al-Ghitaa, the director, who covers her whole face in the presence of men.

At another location, the foundation is building the Dar al-Hikma seminary for men to make it into the largest and most structured in Najaf. At the moment, most hawzas, or Shiite seminaries, involve a senior cleric giving classes to circles of students. Three hundred students are studying at the foundation's seminary and will graduate in six years to be mentors.

"This is our strategic project … we are grooming highly skilled mentors," says Hassan al-Hakim.

The foundation is also focused on children's education. At its Imam Ali schools where 2,000 are enrolled, students get English language, computer, and Islamic moral lessons starting in first grade. In Iraqi public schools, English is taught starting in fifth grade.

Good manners rule in the schools, where classrooms are spacious and smartly furnished. Boys and girls study separately, and girls older than 10 must be veiled. But some girls as young as 6 are covered.

Ammar al-Hakim denies that his foundation's activities are for the purpose of gaining popularity or promoting his party's agendas.

"We just want to set good examples for others.… if our party was solely after power, we would have grabbed it from the first day we returned to Iraq.… We are much more interested in the success of the Iraqi political project as a whole," he says.

"As for our insistence on the formation of regions in Iraq, we think it's the only means for security and stability."

Regarding the foundation's strong Islamic bent, Hakim says: "We are trying to promote and ingrain in people tolerant Islamic teachings … our goal is to serve humanity as a whole."

He says the foundation does not receive money from Iran and says it depends on donations and payments of khums, the sum of one-fifth of their income that pious Shiites hand over to their religious authorities to spend as they see fit. Other officials in ISCI say the party's position as a privileged interlocutor with Iran has turned it into a facilitator of Iranian-US dialogue "for the benefit of Iraq."

In a report issued last week, the International Crisis Group said that despite efforts to transform its image, ISCI continues to be at its core a sectarian religious party that, like other Shiite and non-Shiite players, receives funding from Iran.

"Its quest for power (political in Baghdad, religious in Najaf) has first and foremost taken the form of a quest for respectability," said the report.

"It has made strenuous efforts to distance itself from its Iranian patron, whitewash its embarrassing past, build political coalitions [and] profess the importance of Iraq's unity…."