Iraq's Hakim may become a reluctant kingmaker
Ammar al-Hakim is a name that casts a long shadow over Iraq's political class. The 43-year-old head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) is regarded as a kingmaker by many. To form a government in Iraq you need his blessing. But how did this relatively young man from Najaf attain such power?
In April 2003 I was in Basra in southern Iraq covering the occupation. Basra, unlike Baghdad, had quietened down quickly. It meant we could move around and I wanted to see how Iraqis were faring under their new circumstances.
At an oil refinery the British army had taken over, an Iraqi engineer beckoned me over to a console. The refinery hadn't seen any investment in decades and reminded me of a film set in an Austin Powers movie, all large metal levers and analogue dials. On a steel desk the engineer had placed a picture of Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the father of Ammar al-Hakim. He picked up the picture and kissed it.
The act wasn't lost on me. When Saddam Hussein was in power, Hakim's father had, from exile in Iran, led the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which Saddam had fought a brutal campaign against.
The council was created in 1982 in Iran with the specific aim of toppling Saddam and fighting for the rights of Iraq's Shia community. Everywhere you went in Basra you saw how the regime had sought to undermine and weaken the Shias of Iraq.
Basra, to be blunt, was a dump. Filth flowed through the streets and into open sewers. Rubbish was left uncollected. The oil refinery had seen much better days.
For this Iraqi oil worker to proudly display a picture of Hakim was so much more than an act of respect. It was an act of revolution that weeks earlier could have cost him his life.
The savior of Shia
The Supreme Council was seen by many as the saviour of Iraq's Shia. But after years of being oppressed, the Shia group had no love for the minority Sunnis who had dominated them for so long. The council's military arm, the Badr Brigade, was and remains feared. It was regarded as unmerciful and vengeful during Iraq's sectarian war.
By 2006 the SCIRI had morphed into Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, and Hakim took over when his father died in 2009.
Hakim had seen the influence of the party wane and sought to reverse that trend. He reached out to all political players and began to change the group's image and build alliances with other religious Shia groups, including traditional rivals like those led by Muqtada al-Sadr.
In many ways Hakim has the perfect credentials. He has a religious law background and studied in seminaries in Iran where he became a Sayyid, or cleric. It's a powerful title which gives him religious authority. He's also from a well-known family. Generations of Hakims have been involved in politics and religion.
Hakim also has an almost mythical status among his supporters. One Iraqi I asked, Mahmoud, who lives in Baghdad, said: "Hakim is a man who commands respect. He isn't a dirty politician, he is a man of God and he shows us the right path for Iraq. He is our bridge, our guiding light."
Hakim's style of leadership is also winning him support in the international arena. One Western diplomatic source said: "Hakim is inclusive. He reached out to the youth, to women and that's impressed us. He isn't just talk."
Others agree. I asked one European diplomat what her embassy thought of Hakim. "We love him" was her reply. Clearly it was meant as a light-hearted comment but in all seriousness it's very difficult to find open critics of Hakim who aren't political rivals or driven by sectarian rage.
Hakim is a smart operator and under his leadership he has rebuilt ISCI into a very influential and powerful organisation. Before last month's elections he launched the citizen coalition with a simple message that Iraq needs reform, both country-wide and throughout government.
Many politicians flocked to his call and his bloc is very powerful.
So then, why is this young, charismatic and well respected man not the leader of Iraq?
Better to rule from the heart
He certainly seems an obvious choice. It's a question I ask Ahmed Rushdi, a political analyst. "Hakim's authority comes from his position as a cleric," Rushdi says. "His authority comes from God, if you will. Islam is the heart, and the head is politics. It's better to rule from the heart. He has the love and respect of many people."
By staying out of government, Hakim has become a more powerful figure than he would be if he had run for office. It's an act of faith for Hakim that he has remained true to his spiritual path as a cleric.
Rather conveniently, it also means he can blame the politicians for the country's ills and not have to busy himself with the day-to-day business of politics.
However, he does command a powerful party and he can, through a process of consultation with others inside and outside his party, choose the next prime minister of Iraq. There's a lot of electoral math to go yet but Hakim is in a very good position.
Official results of the election won't be announced until May 25 but between now and then a lot of backstage deals will be in the making, including who Hakim will back as Prime Minister.
So far he hasn't backed Nouri al-Maliki publicly, so many wonder what Hakim's next move might be. Maliki is seeking a third term and knows how important Hakim is.
As one Western diplomatic source put it: "He could be a kingmaker, but I'm not sure he wants to be a kingmaker for Maliki, but with few options left and depending on election results, he might just have to be the reluctant kingmaker."
Kingmaker, reluctant or not, is a very powerful role in Iraqi politics and one Hakim, it appears, was born to play.