TEHRAN, Iran - Before prison and torture, before life in exile, before surviving seven assassination attempts and the execution of dozens of his relatives, Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim wished only to become a Muslim theologian.
By the age of 25, al-Hakim had achieved his goal and was teaching Islamic law in Baghdad. The choice he made to become a Shiite Muslim cleric - like his grandfather, father and older siblings - set him on a lifelong confrontation with the secular Iraqi regime and a life in which religion and politics were inextricably linked.
Today, al-Hakim, 63, is the most important Iraqi opposition political or religious figure, a man who will have a lot to say about the stability of Iraq if the United States forcibly removes Saddam Hussein from power. While Shiites are the dominant group in Iraq, making up 60 percent of the country's population of 24 million, a minority from the Sunni branch of Islam has ruled the country since it gained independence from Britain in 1932. The Shiites have been waiting seven decades for a chance to rule, and most of them look toward al-Hakim for leadership.
But the United States has a testy relationship with al-Hakim, suspicious of his ties to Iran, where he has lived in exile since 1980. Al-Hakim and the group he leads, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, are strongly backed by the Iranian government, which President Bush considers part of an "axis of evil," along with Iraq and North Korea. Despite wariness about forging an alliance with an Iranian-backed cleric, U.S. officials have held talks in recent months with al-Hakim's group.
The contacts seem to have produced few results, however, and al-Hakim has been kept out of U.S. war planning, like the rest of the Iraqi opposition.
Al-Hakim controls a militia, called the Badr Brigade, that numbers about 10,000 fighters, many of them Iraqi army deserters who are trained and armed by Iran's Revolutionary Guards. The militia has been conducting a guerrilla war against the Iraqi regime for 20 years, to little effect.
In 1991, al-Hakim's fighters came pouring over the border from Iran into southern Iraq after former President George Bush urged Iraqis to topple Hussein while his forces were in panicked retreat at the end of the gulf war. But the United States did not back the Shiite uprising that ensued, and the rebels were quickly crushed by Iraqi forces. The Shiites, who dominate southern Iraq, felt they were betrayed by the United States, and many are still suspicious of American motives.
Al-Hakim says his fighters are ready to battle once again, and he expects tens of thousands of Shiite conscripts in the Iraqi army to join his forces, motivated by the U.S. attack. But he also appears to be on a collision course with the United States, which plans to establish a military government in Iraq once Hussein's regime is toppled. Al-Hakim has repeatedly said that his forces would not work under U.S. control and that military occupation would lead to a popular rebellion.
"If the Americans enter Iraq because they want to rescue our people from this evil regime, and then they leave matters to the Iraqi people themselves, then everyone will be pleased," al-Hakim said in an interview at his Tehran office. "But if the Americans come in with the intention of controlling Iraq, its wealth and its resources, then they're going to face strong opposition from all the Iraqi people."
He deflected a question about whether his Badr fighters would attack U.S. forces during an occupation. "We have been fighting for our freedom for a long time," he said, guardedly. "We will continue to do so."
No matter what the Bush administration thinks of al-Hakim's motivations, analysts say it has little choice but to deal with him. "He's one of the few opposition figures with real support inside Iraq," said Edmund Ghareeb, a political science professor at American University in Washington and an expert on the Iraqi opposition. "And he's a Shiite spiritual leader with a worldwide following. The U.S. administration would ignore someone like him at its own peril."
The United States is concerned that if al-Hakim and his supporters gain a share of power in a new Iraqi regime, they would try to impose an Iranian-style theocracy in Iraq and they would be beholden to Tehran. But al-Hakim and some analysts note that Iranian and Arab Shiite Muslims each have a distinct sense of identity, and Iraqi Shiites are not likely to allow excessive Iranian influence over any new government.
"Most Iraqi Shiites feel a stronger devotion to Arabism than to Shiism," says Davoud Hermidas Bavand, a political analyst in Tehran. "The American notion that Iraqi Shiites would ally themselves with Iran in a post-Saddam government is mistaken."
Bavand noted that the vast majority of Iraqi Shiites remained loyal to Iraq during their country's eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s. The fear of Iranian influence on Iraqi Shiites was one of the main factors behind the U.S. decision not to support the 1991 Shiite uprising.
If the Iraqi regime is toppled, there is the potential for competition between Iranian and Iraqi Shiites for dominance over the worldwide Shiite community.
One of the ayatollah's top advisers said al-Hakim plans to return to Iraq as a religious, not political, leader. "We realize that we have to make compromises and that we have to be part of a coalition government," the aide said. "We don't expect to create an Islamic state."
Al-Hakim was born in 1939 in Najaf, the fifth of nine sons of Grand Ayatollah Muhsin al-Hakim, who later became the spiritual leader of the worldwide Shiite community for nearly 20 years. After the Baath Party rose to power in Iraq in 1968, the elder al-Hakim issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, against membership in the party. That set off a confrontation between the al-Hakim family and the secular regime, which continues today.
After the grand ayatollah's death in 1970, the mantle of spiritual leader for Iraqi Shiites fell to Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al-Sadr, who was a close friend of Muhammad al-Hakim. The pair accelerated the Shiite community's political organization and efforts against the Baathist regime. They and their followers were arrested repeatedly and tortured during the 1970s.
"In this period, we lived with killings, imprisonments and torture," al-Hakim said.
In 1977, the Iraqi regime attacked a large religious demonstration in Najaf led by al-Hakim, and a widespread purge of the Shiite community followed. Several thousand Shiites were arrested, and five leading clerics were executed. Al-Hakim and al-Sadr were sentenced to life in prison, but they were released the next year because of pressure from several Arab governments. In April 1980, al-Sadr was arrested again and executed, prompting al-Hakim to flee Iraq. He went to Syria and then moved to Tehran.
As al-Hakim waged a guerrilla battle against the Iraqi government through his Badr militia, the regime retaliated by arresting more than 100 of his relatives in Najaf. Five of al-Hakim's brothers, nine of his nephews and nearly 50 other relatives were eventually executed.
Al-Hakim warns Washington about the perils of occupying Iraq. He pointed out the Iraqi rebellion of 1920 against British rule, which led to the installation of a monarchy in Baghdad, as a way of reminding the United States of what can happen to foreign invaders in Iraq.
"The Iraqi people are not going to tolerate years of American military occupation," he said. "We fought foreign invaders before, and we would do it again."
Mohamad Bazzi writes for Newsday, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.