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Iran's bid for power in postwar Iraq

As Iraqi Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki meets President Obama in Washington, Tehran is trying to broaden its influence in Iraq by installing a heavy-hitting cleric there.

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The younger Sadr staged two uprisings against American forces in Iraq, has a powerful faction of loyalists in parliament, and reportedly studies under Shahroudi in Iran.

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Despite those links, some Shiite politicians try to play down the impact of any high-level changes.

"Our religious maraji are a very strong establishment," says Hassan al-Jubori, an Iraqi parliamentarian loyal to Sadr. "It is not conceivable that the coming of any marja from outside would have 1 percent influence on the Shiites of Iraq.

"It's true some politicians will take the opportunity to show how bad Iranian influence will be, but the fact is Iran has been a neighbor for hundreds of years," says Mr. Jubori. "We should look for ways of good exchange."

Of concern to many Iraqis is Shahroudi's hard-line history. As Iran’s judiciary chief he was instrumental in cracking down on student protests in 1999, closing more than 200 newspapers, and prosecuting reformist lawmakers.

Today Shahroudi sits on Iran’s Guardian Council, and – in a sign of how close he is to Khamenei – he was appointed earlier this year to head a five-member arbitration body meant to resolve severe political disputes between Ahmadinejad and Parliament.

"He has a very black record, and it's very obvious; there is no doubt that his hands are in blood," says analyst and former seminarian Khalaji, noting that senior clerics are meant to be objective, which a judge cannot be.

"This is something that destroys one's credential in the seminary; being a judge always puts your religious credentials at risk. That's why very prominent clerics are extremely reluctant to accept the position of a judge, let alone being the head of judiciary," he says.

Seen by some as brutal, not pious

Of course, in the Islamic Republic, the judiciary and a number of key ministries are controlled by clerics. But Shahroudi does not fit the mold of an ascetic, humble spiritual guide. "He's very wealthy, he's doing business," adds Khalaji. "[Shahroudi] lacks this pious image that is very necessary to be a marja and have a real wide range of followers."

But that did not keep Dawa from "inviting" him to Najaf to vie for influence against Sistani. The Iranian government "considers this project a vastly beneficial one," an unnamed Dawa source told Shatt al-Arab.The choice was "an attempt to get rid of the pressures" of Sistani's criticism, the source acknowledged.

He added that Shahroudi was instrumental in overcoming months of stalemate to help form the Iraqi government.

Shahroudi made "enormous efforts" to garner Iranian support for Maliki to remain as prime minister after a controversial vote, while pressuring Sadr to do the same in a "secret deal brokered by Shahroudi."

One Shiite critic claimed that Maliki, after taking control of the government, now wants to use Shahroudi as a "very powerful and influential weapon" to control its maraji.

But the problem of ties to Iran also remains, says Khalaji: "People in seminary do not have a good image of Shahroudi, because they believe he ... works for Khamenei."

Sahar Issa contributed reporting from Baghdad.

Related video:

Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi

Right-hand man to Iran's supreme leader

Ayatollah Shahroudi was born in Iraq but has long served in Iran's regime.

•Trained by revered Iraqi grand ayatollah

•Sent to Iran to serve father of 1979 revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini

• Appointed Khomeini's coordinator of Shiite powers outside Iran

•Named hard-liner chief of Iran's judiciary; crushed protests, closed 200 newspapers, prosecuted reformist lawmakers

•Chose Tehran prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi, under whom political prisoners were abused and killed

•Appointed in 2011 to arbitrate between Iran's president, parliament

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