Exiled Ayatollah Awaits Return To Iraq

Spiritual Leader's Return Puts Snag In U.S. Plans For Post-War Iraq

An exiled spiritual leader of Iraq's Shiite Muslims, who make up more than 60 percent of the population, tells CBS News correspondent Bob Simon that he is ready to return to help his people - a factor that could affect the U.S. plans for a post-war democracy in Iraq.

Ready to return to Iraq on a moment's notice, al-Hakim has enjoyed a long relationship with Iran's revolutionary Islamic government.

"I would take any opportunity that comes. I will do my duty," he tells Simon. "If the Iraqi people need my help, then, obviously, I will offer it."

Al-Hakim may also want to return to Iraq to seek vengeance on Saddam Hussein and his followers in a feud that goes back decades. The al-Hakim family for generations has been Shiite Muslim clerics, opposed to Hussein, a Sunni Muslim, and his regime. To avenge this opposition, the Iraqi dictator has killed 27 members of al-Hakim's family. Hussein has also tried to assassinate Ayatollah al-Hakim eight times.

U.S. authorities have warned the ayatollah - and his 15,000 Iraqi troops, armed by Iran's Islamic government and trained by its Revolutionary Guard - not to enter Iraq. They're afraid the influence of an Islamic state would create a poor climate for the democracy planned for Iraqis. While the ayatollah says he favors democracy, the name of his religious movement is "The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution."

The Shiites will be wary of the U.S. as well, because of a bloodbath they suffered at the end of the last Gulf war. The first President Bush, toward the end of that conflict, urged Iraqis to revolt against Hussein. The Shiites did and nearly toppled the dictator before he sent helicopter gun ships to suppress them.

The U.S. refused to come to their aid. The reason a U.S. official gave for the refusal, says Dr. Mowaffak al-Rubaie, a leader of the Iraqi Shiite opposition who lives in London, was fear of the unknown. "[The official] was saying that the uprising was an unknown quantity for us, while Saddam Hussein was the devil we know," he tells Simon.

Will Shiites living in Iraq welcome American efforts to control the country long enough to plant the seeds of democracy? "We will consider it occupation," says al-Rubaie, "and the Iraqi people inside will perceive this as ... a foreign army coming to occupy Iraq," he tells Simon.