- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 19, 2012

BAGHDAD — Iran has played many political roles in Baghdad since the fall of Saddam Hussein: spoiler to American-crafted administrations, haven for Iraqi political outcasts and big brother to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government.

Now add another description: emergency repairman trying to keep Mr. al-Maliki’s coalition from splitting at the seams.

Shiite powerhouse Iran appears desperate to save the patchwork administration it helped create in late 2010 to pull Iraq out of its last major political crisis.

Tehran is calling in favors among its allied factions in Iraq and exerting its significant religious and commercial influence to try to block Mr. al-Maliki’s opponents from getting a no-confidence motion.

Last week, one of the linchpin partners in Mr. al-Maliki’s government, Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, traveled to Iran for talks, government officials said. A day earlier, Sheik al-Sadr urged Mr. al-Maliki to “do the right thing” and resign, but it remains unclear whether Sheik al-Sadr will bow to Iranian pressure in the end.

A collapse of Mr. al-Maliki’s government could be a stinging blow to Iran’s ruling system, which already is nervous about the future of its other critical Middle Eastern ally, Syria’s embattled President Bashar Assad.

It also presents a rare convergence of interests between Tehran and Washington, which also views the wily Mr. al-Maliki as perhaps the only viable Iraqi leader for the moment.

“No doubt Iran is a significant political force in Iraq,” said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, a Syracuse University professor who follows Iranian affairs. “They are actively and aggressively trying to keep al-Maliki in power.

“The fear is that the downfall of al-Maliki, coupled with the uncertainties about Assad’s fate in Syria, could leave the Iranians suddenly looking at unfriendly faces.”

‘A big player’

Iran’s fingerprints are all over Mr. al-Maliki’s inner circle.

Iran helped engineer the deal in December 2010 that brought Sheik al-Sadr’s anti-American bloc into the political fold, ending a nine-month political stalemate and keeping Mr. al-Maliki as prime minister.

In April, Mr. al-Maliki was given a red-carpet welcome during a visit to Tehran, where he had spent some time as an anti-Saddam Hussein activist.

Iran delivered an even bigger reward to Mr. al-Maliki in May: bringing the nuclear talks with world powers to Baghdad as a symbol of the city’s slow rebound from war and as a showcase of Iran’s close ties.

But Mr. al-Maliki’s political safety net was fraying at the same time.

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