Professional diplomats love to talk about "watching the signals." High-profile meetings— like President Bush's encounter at the White House today with Iraqi Shiite politician Abdul Aziz al-Hakim—seldom result in sweeping policy shifts. But they do send a message, and the "optics" of the event are often more important than the sound-bites that emerge from the press conference afterward. So what signal, exactly, is President Bush trying to send by meeting with Hakim, one of the most revered, but also controversial, Shiite figures in Iraq?
On the surface, the message seems clear enough. As leader of one of the most powerful blocs in Iraq's parliament, Hakim is one of the few Iraqi politicians positioned to rescue the foundering government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. As sectarian violence has exploded over the past several weeks, Maliki's hold on power appears more tenuous than ever. Even some of Bush's closest aides, like National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley, have questioned whether Maliki is up to the job. And the problem was only compounded last week when followers of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr announced they would boycott Maliki's government. The Sadrist threats probably aren't enough to topple Maliki's government on their own. Still, securing the support of Hakim's bloc of 30 parliamentarians—the same number as those who support Sadr’s party—seems more urgent than ever for Maliki and his allies in Washington.
Yet at least some Iraqis say they are also getting another signal. The final report of the Iraq Study Group, due to be delivered on Wednesday, is expected to call for talks with Iraq's neighbors, including Iran. And Hakim could end up emerging as a key conduit, acting as a "mediator" between the United States and the Islamic republic, according a senior Iraqi government official, who didn't want to be identified discussing sensitive diplomacy. The Iranians "send a very clear message through Hakim," says the Iraqi official. "They want to be recognized and reckoned with."
It wouldn't be the first time that the Bush administration has turned to Hakim for help. In one sense, American policymakers considered the Hakim family natural allies during the original push to overthrow Saddam Hussein. As a son of the Grand Ayatollah Muhsin al-Hakim, Abdul-Aziz was born into one of Shia Islam's most prominent families. In 1982, he helped to found the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI)—one of the key groups working to overthrow the Iraqi dictator. When Hakim's brother Baqir was assassinated in Najaf in 2003, Abdul-Aziz took over the group's leadership, and was eventually appointed president of the U.S.-backed Iraqi Governing Council in 2003.
But Hakim's ties to Iran's clerical leadership—along with his command of SCIRI's Badr Corps militia, which fought against Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war during the 1980s—also made him a dangerous figure in the eyes of at least some Americans. At a press conference back in March 2003, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dismissed Hakim's Badr fighters as "unhelpful," and declared that the militiamen be "treated as combatants." "The Badr Corps is trained, equipped and directed by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard," Rumsfeld insisted. "We will hold the Iranian government responsible for their actions." Even Sadr regularly rails against the dangers of Iranian influence in Iraq, warning that the country's intelligence operatives are trying to infiltrate his organization. In recent months, Hakim's Badr forces have periodically clashed with Sadr's Mahdi Army, fueling tensions even further. Some worry that a fight between Sadr and Badr could be just as bloody as the current Sunni-Shia violence.
American officials insist they still consider Hakim's fighters—along with Iraq's other militias—to be a danger to the stability of the Maliki government. A senior U.S. official in Baghdad, who did not want to be identified discussing sensitive diplomacy, said that during the meeting today Bush would reiterate his support for Maliki's government, and press Hakim to help "fix the militia problem." Still, such vague pronouncements are likely to be lost on Iraqis mired in the daily violence of sectarian warfare. They're more likely to be watching the signals. The clear message: Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim is once again a key man to see.
With Christopher Dickey and Babak Dehghanpisheh