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Questions grow over Iran's influence in Iraq

As Tariq al-Hashemi's death sentence heightens sectarian tensions in Iraq, Shiite Iran's role there is getting more attention, including a potential clerical succession struggle in Najaf.

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Yet any move by Shahroudi to contest the post-Sistani power struggle "would be of momentous significance for Iraqi politics," wrote historian Reidar Visser, who closely follows Iraqi politics on his website. The visit "did nothing to kill the rumors about some kind of Iranian design on the holiest center of Iraqi Shiism."

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Those rumors are unfounded, according to the director of Shahroudi's office in Najaf, Ibrahim al-Baghdadi.

"Most everything published in the media exaggerates the size of this story – it's only media fabrication to confuse the street. But the office is open, it exists, and visitors come," says Mr. Baghdadi, speaking in a book-lined study adjacent to a prayer room that has yet to see a visit from Shahroudi himself. "All the news about Shahroudi is free advertising."

Shahroudi ‘is not a stranger’

Shahroudi followers here highlight the cleric's leadership decades ago among Iraq's Islamic opposition to Saddam Hussein, and his high-level religious training under one of the most popular figures in Iraqi Shiism, the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr.

"He has a big desire to come visit Iraq and stay in Iraq, but he has a big responsibility in Iran," says Baghdadi. "When he comes, he will come as a religious person, not a political man."

With its dust-blown alleys and battalions of turbaned seminary students, who stride these streets with books under their arms, this Shiite holy city might appear an unlikely battleground for influence between Iran and Iraq.

"Iran is a local issue in Iraq, [but] the big problem with Shahroudi is that he was an employee of the Iranian government," says Sermad al-Taee, a well-known Baghdad columnist in charge of the Al-Mada TV newsroom. "His enemies in Najaf make this point again and again."

But Shahroudi also has friends, who downplay the Iran connection. The cleric's family had "a special knowledge from the beginning, so it was targeted by the Saddam regime," which forced Shahroudi to leave for Iran or be killed, says Sheikh Ali Merza, a Dawa party leader and member of the Najaf Provincial Council, who knows Shahroudi personally and studied under him.

"[Shahroudi] is a son of Najaf, he is not a stranger," says Mr. Merza. "He does not just have a history here, but many books written. He kept in contact with people; he's part of the hawza [religious establishment]. So if we talk about his returning, it's no problem, it's natural."

But would such an event usher in more Iranian influence? Shahroudi "will not be the tongue for others – you should believe this," says Merza. "Sistani is preventing interference of Iran in Iraqi matters, and [Shahroudi] will work in the same way."

Nor would premier Maliki be in a position to control the choice of Sistani's successor, says Sheikh Ali Bashir al-Najafi, the son of a top-ranked Shiite theologian in Najaf.

"When the politicians try to mention a religious view, he should be asked questions about it," says Najafi. "The mechanism of choosing [religious leaders] is not led by a political process."

"Shahroudi is an overblown thing," says the ICG's Hiltermann.

"He's an outsider coming into Najaf, they don't like that.... Plus he is not a quietist," says Hiltermann. From among the handful of possible successors to Sistani, "it will be decided over time, but it is extremely unlikely to be Shahroudi.... The Shiite world is just not going to go that way."

Follow Scott Peterson on Twitter at @peterson__scott


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