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Iran rallies to aid Iraq’s embattled leader

Tehran worried about viability of Shiite allies

- 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.

One government partner, the heavily Sunni Iraqiya movement, has complained of being sidelined in decision-making. Kurdish parties from northern Iraq also joined the revolt.

Even Sheik al-Sadr - who spent nearly four years in self-exile in Iran to avoid American-led forces - signaled that he, too, could jump ship and leave Mr. al-Maliki's alliance dangerously close to toppling.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd who has close ties to Iran and the U.S., recently held talks with disgruntled political factions.

But he would not push the dispute to the next level by allowing a no-confidence vote in parliament, where Mr. al-Maliki's opponents would need the majority of the 325 members to bring down the government.

Some senior Iraqi political figures think Iran worked hard behind the scenes to block the no-confidence effort.

"There is some Iranian pressure on [Mr. Talabani] not to send the letter to parliament [requesting the no-confidence vote] and to support al-Maliki," said a lawmaker of Mr. al-Maliki's political bloc, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to discuss sensitive political dealings with reporters.

Hamid al-Mutlaq, a Sunni lawmaker from the Iraqiya bloc, was more blunt: "The Iranian interference annoys us a lot."

"Iran is a big player in Iraqi politics," he said.

U.S.-Iranian agreement

Mr. al-Mutlaq said Mr. al-Maliki's opponents on Sunday handed Mr. Talabani a letter with the signatures of 176 lawmakers, or 13 more than needed to bring down Mr. al-Maliki, and demanded that the president call the vote.

Iraq's political battles are further complicated by the international tussle over the country's highest-ranking Sunni politician, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, who is accused of running death squads that targeted Shiite officials and pilgrims.

Mr. al-Hashemi, who has sought refuge in Turkey, has denied wrongdoing and has said he is the victim of a political vendetta by Mr. al-Maliki and his allies.

Some of Iran's leverage also is applied by powerful proxies.

A top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Kazim al-Haeri, recently sent a message to Sheik al-Sadr urging him to avoid dividing Iraq's Shiites over political disputes. Although born in Iran, Ayatollah al-Haeri's main group of followers is in Iraq. He is also seen as Sheik al-Sadr's mentor.

On Sunday, Ayatollah al-Haeri went further by publishing a fatwa, or religious edict, forbidding support for secular politicians in Iraq's government. It was widely interpreted as a clear warning to Sheik al-Sadr not to risk bringing down Mr. al-Maliki's Iran-leaning administration.

"This fatwa is directed at al-Sadr," said an aide to Mr. al-Maliki. "We are waiting."

The aide also said that the U.S. and Iranian ambassadors in Iraq are in the unusual position of pushing the same agenda: Iraq cannot be allowed to fall back into political limbo.

The aide said both diplomats reached out separately to Amar al-Hakim, head of the biggest Shiite political group in Iraq, with appeals to solve the political spat through dialogue.

The aide spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to brief the news media.

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