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.

Burhan Ozbilici/AP
Iraq's Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi speaks to the media as he leaves a meeting with Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, unseen, in Ankara, Turkey, Sunday, Sept. 9.

The death sentence issued for Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi on Sunday is the latest measure of sectarian division in Iraq, where questions about dictatorial rule and the influence of Iran have grown in the nine months since US troops withdrew.

Mr. Hashemi responded to the verdict by accusing Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – and, obliquely, Shiite Iran – of sowing the seeds of sectarian strife in Iraq. More than 100 people died in explosions and insurgent violence on Sunday alone, one of the bloodiest days since US troops withdrew.

"My people, don't give Maliki and those who stand behind him the chance. They want to make this a sectarian strife. Oppose his conspiracies and provocation calmly," Hashemi said, speaking to journalists in the Turkish capital Monday. 

Hashemi – long an opponent of the US invasion of Iraq and nine-year military presence – told the The Christian Science Monitor recently that American forces should return to complete the task of democracy building, because of the "sectarian and unqualified management of Maliki and the trouble-making of Iran."

In the charged sectarian atmosphere inside Iraq and the wider Middle East, Iran's role in Iraq has become a subject of intense focus. Some Iraqis warn of an "Iran project" to boost Iranian influence over Iraq's religious city of Najaf, by attempting to install one of Iran's top Shiite clerics – Iraqi-born and trained Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi – as the next religious authority in the city. And regional players are watching Maliki's every move for signs of Iran's hand.

Among signs of Iran exerting more influence in Iraq is the air corridor between Iran and Damascus, which overflies Iraq and has aided Mr. Assad's attempt to break the back of a 19-month anti-regime rebellion.

President Barack Obama called Maliki earlier this year, asking that the overflights – apparently stopped under US pressure before the Arab League summit last April – remained stopped, the New York Times reported last week, quoting US officials.

Yet flights began again in July, the Times reported, after a rebel bomb killed four of the Syrian regime's top security officials, galvanizing new advances by the rebel Free Syrian Army. The flights have continued ever since, prompting a follow-up call to Maliki from Vice President Joseph Biden in mid-August.

"Does Maliki do Iran's bidding? Sometimes. But he also does America's bidding, he has good relations with the United States," says Joost Hiltermann, Mideast and North Africa deputy program director for the International Crisis Group (ICG).

"The Iranians cannot impose anything, unless it's a huge thing for them and they can use threats and intimidation and blackmail, but I haven't seen that," says Mr. Hiltermann.

"It's a matter of the Iranians indicating their wishes and running up against internal Iraqi divisions ... plus there is always the [Iraqi] excuse, 'Well, but the Americans keep us from doing it,'" says Hiltermann.

“Iraqis are juggling, under pressure from both sides. They tell the Americans the same thing, ‘We can't do this because of the Iranians,’” Hiltermann adds. "Neither side is in control, the Iraqis are not in control either, they are weak and under pressure. But they can at least play one out against the other ... which they've been doing all along."

Religious successor?

Controversy over Iran relations are especially pronounced in Iraq's Shiite center of learning at Najaf, where the aging and revered Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has ruled the religious establishment in the "quietist" tradition of generally steering clear of politics.

Mr. Sistani has frequently criticized the authoritarian bent of Maliki's tenure, prompting some members of the premier's Dawa party last year to encourage Iran's former judiciary chief Mr. Shahroudi to set up an office in Najaf, as a possible successor to Sistani.

From the start, difficulties plagued the office of Shahroudi – who is especially close to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and sits on Iran's Guardian Council – as concern grew that the cleric would attempt to import Iran's brand of absolute clerical rule called velayat-e faqih. Sistani made clear he would not meet with Shahroudi, and the snub prompted Shahroudi to cancel plans to visit last fall.

Pro-Maliki officials and clerics denied any attempt to carry out an "Iran project" in Najaf. But speculation grew further in April, when Maliki traveled to Tehran and, among many Iranian officials, also met Shahroudi – the only meeting of the trip that was quietly left off the Iraqi leader's official website.

Maliki's trip was "a turning point in the Iran-Iraq relations and a sign of increased cooperation ... in the forthcoming months [that] will have significant impacts on the region's power equations," wrote Iranian analyst Kayhan Barzegar in the E'temad newspaper. 

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."

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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