Iraqi Shiite Party Spends Millions On Mausoleum

Incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is hoping for a repeat of last January's provincial elections — that's when Iraqi voters rejected overtly religious parties and turned to his more secular slate. Luckily for him, those religious parties don't seem to have gotten the message. One of the largest Shiite religious parties is spending millions on an Iranian-style mausoleum to its fallen leaders. It's by far the biggest construction in the city of Najaf, but residents say they'd rather see the money spent on services.

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In Iraq, it's campaign time now that the parliament has finally passed an election law. It allows for nationwide voting in January. We're going to hear now about one of Iraq's parties, made up of members of the country's Shiite majority. As NPR's Quil Lawrence found out on a trip to the city of Najaf, the party has had a hard time getting the hang of elections. It's spending millions to build a mausoleum, money some residents think could be put to better use.

QUIL LAWRENCE: Najaf is the burial place of Imam Ali, the founding martyr of Shiite Islam. Though long neglected, the city plans to rebuild and become the center of Shiite scholarship. And there is one sign that construction has begun. Aside from the dozens of small hotels built for visiting pilgrims, the only tall crane on the skyline rises up from a sprawling brick compound west of the city center. Jawad al-Hakim(ph) is directing the construction of the shrine, mosque, guest house and college, all named for Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim. He was the spiritual leader of Iraq's largest Shiite resistance group, the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq. Hakim returned from a long exile in Iran after the American invasion of 2003. But in August of that year, the Ayatollah fell victim to one of the first massive car bombs.

Hakim's remains are buried here, says Jawad, along with many of the 80 other people killed by the blast. It'll be a couple of years before its finished but you can already see the structure of a cavernous mosque that will serve 12,000 worshipers. Along with classrooms and libraries, the compound is bigger than a football stadium. When Ayatollah Hakim died, his brother Abdul Aziz took over the Supreme Council, but Abdul Aziz succumbed to cancer earlier this year, and hes also buried here. His son, Ammar, has now taken over the party but the Supreme Council is not the political flagship it once appeared to be. In last January's provincial elections, the party did much worse than expected. Ammar al-Hakim, the 39-year-old new face of the party, says this next election will be different.

AMMAR AL-HAKIM (Deputy Leader, Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council): (Through Translator) When we found that the Supreme Council performed poorly, we studied it and discovered a lot of mistakes in our organization, our political speeches, in our media relations. We started to find solutions, and I believe that our situation is better now.

LAWRENCE: But on the streets of Najaf, it's not clear the message has gotten out.

Mr. HUSSEIN HASSAN(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: The Supreme Council has done some good things, says Hussein Hassan, a lawyer from Najaf. But he adds, they put many unqualified people in office and their popularity is low. He says in the last election, they used Shiite symbols as if voting for the party was a religious duty.

Abu Ali(ph), a local teacher says he's so disappointed that he and his wife won't be voting at all in the general elections. While the people of Najaf need housing and clean drinking water, the Supreme Council is building a mosque, he says.

Mr. ABU ALI: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: But this building is for Hakim himself and not for the people, says Abu Ali. Back at the construction site, Jawad al-Hakim admits that some may see this building as a lower priority than some public works. But he says this shrine is being built by donations, not government money.

Mr. JAWAD AL-HAKIM: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: No one should ask me to justify buying books when people are hungry, says Jawad. The government must take care of people, he says, but Najaf also needs its libraries.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

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