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Fri Mar 28 2003 11:17:40 ET

An exiled spiritual leader of Iraq's Shiite Muslims, who make up more than 60 percent of the population, tells Bob Simon 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. The interview with the Ayatollah al-Hakim will be broadcast on 60 MINUTES Sunday, March 30 (7:00-8:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network.

Al-Hakim has spent the last 23 years in exile in Iran, with whose revolutionary Islamic government he has enjoyed a long relationship. He says he is ready to return on a moment's notice. "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 punish Saddam Hussein and his followers due to 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.

But U.S. authorities have warned the Ayatollah and, especially, 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 for which many of them still blame America. The first President Bush, toward the end of the first Gulf War, urged Iraqis to revolt against Hussein. The Shiites did and nearly toppled the dictator before he sent helicopter gun ships to suppress them and after 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.

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