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."