Ayatollah Al Hakim

Ayatollah Mohamad Baqir Al Hakim may hold the key to a stable post-Saddam government in Iraq. Head of the dominant Shiite exile group, the Tehran-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, he is a possible future leader of Iraq's Shiite majority. As such he could well determine whether the country becomes democratic and secular--or drifts toward Islamic fundamentalism.

SCIRI was founded in the early 1980s to export Iran's fundamentalist revolution to Baghdad. The group, which has a large militia called the Badr Brigade, says that is no longer its goal--Iraq has been too secular for too long. Still, it must decide whether to work with the United States or not. Likewise, the United States must decide whether it wants the SCIRI inside or outside Iraq's inchoate political tent. Last week Al Hakim spoke to NEWSWEEK's Owen Matthews in Tehran. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Why did you decide to boycott the U.S.-led meeting in An Nasiriya last week, meant as a first step toward forming an interim government?

AL HAKIM: I personally was not invited, though SCIRI was invited. We talked about going, but decided it wasn't necessary because we didn't know the [agenda]. Also, there were major popular demonstrations in Nasiriya against the meeting.

There were reports that those demonstrators were calling for an Islamic republic in Iraq. Do you support that?

The aim of the Nasiriya demonstration was to support the religious leadership, and to call for Iraqis to manage their own affairs.

Do you want an Islamic republic in Iraq?

The Iraqi people are Muslims. All the political [groups] agree that any government should be democratic and respect Islam.

What about SCIRI's founding intention, to spread Islamic revolution?

The Iraqi opposition has not agreed on anything like that.

When do you plan to return to Iraq?

At the earliest suitable opportunity.

Armed Iraqi Shiite groups called the Badr Brigades have been trained in Iran. Should they be allowed to cross into Iraq?

The Badr Brigades are already inside Iraq. They are carrying out their role, which is to put themselves at the service of the Iraqi people and to ensure their security.

Iran's Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi has said that the Badr Brigades wouldn't be allowed to go to Iraq.

He's being diplomatic. The majority of the Badr Brigades are already in Iraq. They are under our general leadership. There are about 10,000 of them.

Are the Badr Brigades working in any way with the Coalition forces?

No, they are independent. Maybe in the future they might coordinate with Coalition troops, depending on the circumstances.

Why was moderate Shiite cleric Abdul Majid Khoei killed in Najaf on April 10? Was it because he was too pro-American?

There is still a lot of suspicion about what happened. It could have been a provocation by people from outside Najaf, or by members of the old regime. But it was the Coalition forces who started the anarchy that allowed that to happen.

Are you worried the same thing could happen to you?

I don't expect anything like that to happen.

What role will you play in post-Saddam Iraq?

That's up to the people--we want a government elected by the people of Iraq.

So you're going to stand for election?

When the elections come, I will consider it.

Are you going to participate in the transitional government?

We have no information on what they want to do, so it's too early to decide. But we don't want to be part of a government that's under the supervision of outsiders.

Could there be a civil war in Iraq?

The current conditions could cause that to happen. A lot depends on how the [United States] handles the situation.

Do you want Coalition forces to leave?

We have said from the beginning that foreign forces must leave Iraq as soon as possible, and Iraqis must be able to install the government they want. We do not want any government imposed from abroad.

What will your relations be with Iran if you come to power in Iraq?

Iran is a Muslim country. Our relations will be close, and good.

Do you think Bush was right to invade Iraq?

We wanted Saddam's regime to fall, and its collapse is a very good thing, but we wanted it done another way--to support the Iraqi people to do this themselves. But that's in the past now.