The Washington Post has shed light on Iran’s attempts to control Iraq’s Shiite religious establishment in order to expand its influence, as the Iraqi arena is witnessing a struggle between Iranian influences on the one hand and the US on the other.
Iranian religious leaders are moving to expand their influence over the Shi’ite establishment in Iraq with a gamble aimed at controlling the largest religious group in Iraq. The Iranian campaign is clearly visible in Najaf, the Shi’ite holy city.
Iran funds schools and charities in Najaf, builds modern mosques and ties with religious scholars by trying to undermine the authority of local religious leaders who have long been largely independent.
Iraqi political activists say the clerics associated with Iran are promoting a certain type of state-sponsored Shi’ite theology in the city’s academies and are maneuvering to install one of them as the “reference” or the highest religious authority in Iraq.
The posters of Sheikh Mahmoud Shahroudi, the prominent Iranian politician who supported him Tehran for this powerful post before his death, stuck on the walls of Najaf.
“Iran wants to kidnap Najaf and make it its own, wants to have its own reference in Iraq to control his movements”, said Ghaleb Shahbandar, an Iraqi analyst and former Islamic politician.
But the progress of the Iranian theocracy in Najaf faces resistance, the paper says, has angered prominent clerics in the city, which may eventually fuel resentment to include all the Shiites of Iraq, which see this great Iranian intervention in Iraq.
Iran’s attempts to expand its religious influence coincide with its other growing political, military and economic efforts, with the Iraqi arena competing for influence between Washington and Tehran.
The Washington Post says Iran has become particularly strong in Iraq after Tehran-backed militias took a leading role in defeating the state, which occupied a large part of northern Iraq.
These forces, which act as Iran’s proxy, have retained control of Iraq’s vast territory.
Iran’s allies, including former militiamen, have an influential role in the Iraqi parliament.
Iranian officials routinely mediate disputes between political and military factions.
Many Iraqi media rely on Iranian donations at a time when Iranian goods dominate Iraqi markets, let alone of course About the Iranian power supply to power plants in Iraq.
Iran’s religious influence is evident in Najaf, where hundreds of thousands of Iranians travel to the city every year to visit the shrine of Imam Ali, where Iran has financed and helped oversee an ambitious project to expand the shrine, including the construction of a museum, library and classrooms for religious students.
And Khatam Al Anbiya, an engineering company owned by the IRGC, is involved in the project.
Iranian tourists spend huge amounts of money in the markets of Najaf.
There are often banners on Persian-language shops and restaurants, while local bookstores are packed with Iranian religious texts and pamphlets, helping Iran pay for what its citizens visiting Najaf, including clinics Including the Imam Ali Najaf Hospital, and other support services for visitors, in addition to the presence of an Iranian company with a contract for the transport of garbage.
Iran is also paying salaries to religious students through offices run by Iranian clerics and their allies, and sometimes used to recruit Iraqis to fight pro-Iranian militias.
But the Iranians are not welcome in Najaf.
There are particular concerns about what some Iraqi clerics see as Iran’s effort to install its candidate to become the supreme authority for Shiites in the world, currently held by Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani.
Al Sistani, 88, was born in Iran, but he opposes the theory of the rule of the jurist, which was based on the 1979 Iranian revolution, and is against the religious authority being dominant in state affairs.
Sistani has a dominant influence in Najaf and beyond.
His fatwas inspired millions of Iraqis to adopt activities including voting in the elections and taking up arms against state militants. Iraqi observers praised him for bolstering Najaf’s independence and helped calm some of the worst sectarian violence in the country.
It is not clear what will happen once he leaves.
“If Sistani dies, there will be a great struggle over who succeeds him, including among the clergy who have ties to Iran”, said Imad Al Shara, a former forensic science student and currently a researcher at the Iraq War and Peace Reporting Institute.
Najaf through relations with senior clerics, Najaf was weakened as a result, but added: “No one can rule Najaf from outside Najaf”.
Iran has previously tried to control Najaf.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the former chief judge of Iran, sent Shahroudi to Najaf, his hometown, to reopen his office and build a network of followers.
His colleagues say he traveled to Iraq, initially in 2012, with the goal of eventually becoming a top reference for Shiites in Iraq and the world, a project that would have strengthened Iran’s grip on Najaf.
When Shahroudi came to Iraq, “he was preparing to become a breeding ground for Iraq after the death of Sistani”, according to a close Sistani, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Sheikh Jassem Al Mandalawi, one of Shahroudi’s followers in Iraq, said he was born in Iraq and returned to it.
He quietly worked for Sistani, but the reception of Iraqi clerics was not as he had hoped.
He was shocked by the weak welcome that he had decided to leave Iraq.
But despite this position of the mandate of the jurist, but there are those who wish to see Iraq follow the example of Iran in the adoption of this theory of governance and management.
“My ambition in Iraq is to have a system based on religion, as a man of religion”, said Sheikh Alaa Al Din Al Jazri, a preacher in Najaf who has strong ties to Iran and openly defends the Iranian government.
I believe that our religion is capable of managing all parts of life and the state”.
Al Jazari also serves as a senior religious official in Al Najaba, an Iranian-backed militia that was designated by the US government as a terrorist organization last March and is a key liaison officer in Iran’s Supreme Leader’s office.
“Some people believe that there should be a fatwa calling for a revolution to overthrow the state, but others say this fatwa will be a suicide”, Al Jazri said, in a clear reference to the violent reactions that could provoke among many Iraqis.
Iran’s public moves to control the direction of the religious establishment may provoke anger in Iraq, and Sistani’s followers warn that any successor to Sistani pro-Iran will weaken the independence of the Iraqi religious establishment and lead to lift the delicate balance between political and religious forces in the country.
“Sistani has played a key role in maintaining peace and strengthening security and stability in Iraq”, said Sheikh Khalid Al Baghdadi, a Najaf-based cleric and a close aide to Sistani.
“That was his goal from the start”.
When asked about Iran’s attempts to promote its allies in Najaf, Al Baghdadi held his stomach grumpy.
“The Iranians have no authority here. No authority can impose their will on us”.