- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 10, 2012

BAGHDAD — Iran is promoting a fundamentalist cleric close to its supreme leader as a possible successor for the aging spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiites in a move that would give Tehran a powerful platform to influence its neighbor, according to sources close to Iraq’s religious leadership.

The 81-year-old spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is one of the most influential figures in Iraq, revered by its Shiite majority as well as by Shiites around the world.

In the years after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and fall of Saddam Hussein, he was strong enough to shape the new Iraq, forcing American leaders and Iraqi politicians to revise parts of their transition plans he opposed.

The man Iran is maneuvering in hopes of eventually replacing him is Grand Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, a prominent insider in the clerical hierarchy that rules Iran.

He was the head of Iran’s judiciary for 10 years until 2009, playing a major role in suppressing the country’s reform movement, and sits on one of Iran’s main ruling councils.

Campaigning in Najaf

Mr. Shahroudi has started to build a presence in Najaf, the Iraqi holy city of dozens of seminaries that is the center of Shiism’s religious leadership. Many of the world’s 200 million Shiites turn to Najaf for spiritual and political guidance.

Posters bearing his portrait have sprung up in the Baghdad district of Sadr City, a bastion of Shiite activism and home to some 2.5 million Shiites.

Iran’s growing influence in Iraq through the economy and ties with Shiite politicians in Baghdad is already a source of alarm to the United States and its Gulf Arab allies who see Shiite-majority Iran as a rival.

Mr. Shahroudi would boost Tehran’s voice in Iraq, if he ever succeeds Mr. al-Sistani as “al-marjaa al-akbar,” or “the greatest object of emulation.”

The 63-year-old Shahroudi would likely take an even more assertive political role than Mr. al-Sistani, who adheres to a school of Shiism that rejects formal rule by clerics. In Iran, the clerics hold ultimate power.

Also, Mr. al-Sistani has lived in seclusion for years. He is thought not to have left his Najaf house since 2004, and some feel he has grown out of step with Iraq’s new generation of young and empowered Shiites.

Disillusioned over unemployment and erratic services, many young Shiites are looking for a more dynamic religious leadership to counter what they see as the rising power of rival Sunni fundamentalists in the Arab world.

Iraq’s Shiites are deeply politicized, and they have had enough of traditional marjaiyah [religious authorities] like al-Sistani‘s,” said one insider in Najaf, who is in daily contact with the city’s top clerics.

Iran is taking advantage of this by working energetically to replace him with one of its own.”

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