During Iraq's last parliamentary elections in 2005, Shiite political parties united under a single banner—and won big. This time the votes are split. The biggest rivalry will be between the State of Law coalition of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the National Iraqi Alliance (NIA), led by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). Despite the huge victory in 2005, Islamist parties didn't fare well in the provincial elections last year. Ammar al-Hakim is determined to turn that around. After the death of his father, Abdul Aziz, from lung cancer last year, the 38-year-old cleric was shoved into the spotlight as the leader of ISCI and now as the de facto leader of the NIA electoral bloc. He met with NEWSWEEK's Babak Dehghanpisheh in Baghdad:
For this election, what do you think is the most important issue for ordinary Iraqis?
Iraqis are suffering from a lack of services. They are worried about the security situation. They haven't been satisfied with the activities of the Parliament and government. They have heard many promises, but they have not seen them achieved yet.
Your party—ISCI—has also been in the government and has not fulfilled those promises.
We formed a national unity government. We were partners in the victories that were achieved. And we were also partners in the disappointments. But the balance of the responsibilities is spread between the different parties. It's possible that some faults took place. But what's important is to decide what these faults are and then try to find solutions for these problems. The important thing is to avoid repeating these mistakes.
ISCI did not do very well in the provincial elections. Were you surprised? What would you do differently now?
The results made our leadership spend a lot of time and effort to review and criticize. We discussed every single detail of our activities—our slogans, our ideas, our media statements, our organizations and groups. And we took steps to correct these mistakes.
A de-Baathification process has disqualified several candidates for the elections. Critics of this process say that it was intended to eliminate political opponents. What's your opinion?
When we reviewed the list of the banned people, we found that 18 people were from our [National Iraqi] Alliance list. Thirty members were from Mr. Maliki's list. And the same for the other lists. The Justice and Accountability Law was confirmed two years ago. The majority approved it. I mean, the political parties who are now opposing this law are the ones who approved it. I don't think a high-ranking member of the Nazi Party is allowed to participate in the elections in Germany. So why should the Baathists have a chance? We are distinguishing between the Baath Party and the Sunni Arabs in Iraq. The Sunni Arabs are true partners, and we will defend their presence. They should have a role.
You don't think the Sunnis will boycott the elections?
The statements we hear from the Sunni leadership are encouraging. The idea that the Baath Party is the representative of the Sunnis humiliates them. Because the Sunnis are bigger than this one party that was responsible for so much brutality.
American officials say that this de-Baathification effort is being pushed by Iran.
What I know is that this is an Iraqi election. The Justice and Accountability Commission is an Iraqi commission. So Iran is not interfering in Iraq. We don't allow the interference of others.
So you reject this charge that the Iranians are interfering in the elections?
I don't know about any such pressures.
One of your rivals in recent years has been the movement formerly run by Moqtada al-Sadr. Now you're on the same list. Is that creating any tension or do you have good relations?
There's good coordination and regular meetings. We believe this is a big message sent from the National Iraqi Alliance—that groups with different viewpoints can be united.
Are you in touch with Moqtada al-Sadr?
He is not here [in Iraq]. So we can't be in touch with him [smiling]. But there is a group appointed by him. We exchange messages between each other and discuss issues with them.
Is he in Qum, Iran, the seat of that nation's religious establishment?
I don't know whether he's there or not.
You recently took a trip to Lebanon. Is there anything from Lebanon's recent experience and history that you think Iraq could learn from now?
There are a lot of things we can use. First of all, my grandmother is Lebanese. So I have family ties with Lebanon. Many clerics from Lebanon studied in Najaf, and we have contacts with them.
What was your impression of Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah? Was it the first time you met him?
No, I met him once before. We discussed general things. I told him that from a distance it seems like he has a hard life—sine he can't move around much. I imagined just keeping myself within some walls. It would be very tough. But I found that he had high principles that helped him deal with these circumstances. He mentioned that this gave him time for reading. So he felt he is satisfied with his situation.
Do you think the withdrawal of American troops this summer will lead to a deterioration of the security situation?
We noticed after the withdrawal of 140,000 American soldiers from the cities [last year] that we didn't see any deterioration in security. The Iraqis are able to provide security for the country and for the people. We hope that the relationship we develop with the United States is based on politics and science—more than just a military relationship.
Despite all the difficulties in the past few years, do you think there is a chance that Iraq could be seen as a democratic model in the region?
In a short time, Inshallah.