- 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.”

Line of succession

The insider is one of six who are well connected to the Shiites’ secretive religious establishment in Najaf and in Baghdad. They said Mr. Shahroudi appears to be angling for the post. They spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Mr. al-Sistani, who was treated in London for heart problems in 2004, remains healthy and alert, according to visitors who saw him recently. But his advanced age has fueled speculation about his succession in Najaf.

The succession does not necessarily have to wait until Mr. al-Sistani’s death. It could effectively take place if he is deemed too old to guide his followers.

The position of al-marjaa al-akbar is considered the highest in Shia Islam’s spiritual hierarchy, and Mr. al-Sistani has been al-marjaa al-akbar since the 1990s.

Filling the post is done by an informal process of consensus among senior and middle-ranking clerics, aimed at choosing the learned and respected figure.

Ibrahim al-Baghdadi, Mr. Shahroudi’s top aide in Najaf, would not say if Mr. Shahroudi has ambitions for the position. Still, Mr. Shahroudi is laying the necessary groundwork.

He opened a representative office in Najaf in October and plans to visit the city soon, according to Mr. al-Baghdadi.

He has begun paying monthly stipends to poor seminary students, organizing “study circles” and collecting the “khoms” from followers - a tithe of a fifth of one’s income.

Any ayatollah with aspirations of becoming a marjaa must write a religious textbook known as a “Tawdih al-Masail,” or “Clarification of Issues,” laying out rules for daily religious practice. Mr. Shahroudi published his a year ago.

Dynamic leader

He is already known to be the spiritual leader of powerful Iraqi factions, including followers of the Badr Organization as well as most members of the Iranian-backed Shiite Hezbollah Brigades militia active in southern Iraq, and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a hardline faction.

Among his students in Qom were Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, and Humam Hamoudi, a prominent Iraqi politician.

Mr. Shahroudi was born in Najaf to Iranian parents in a family of clerics that claims descent from the Prophet Mohammad. He studied under Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, a prominent scholar credited with modernizing Shiite doctrine before he was executed in 1980.

Mr. Shahroudi fled a 1979 crackdown against Shiites and took refuge in Iran.

There, he became the first leader of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a major opposition group of Iraqi Shiite exiles.

Mr. Shahroudi also rose in Iran’s clerical leadership. He is so close to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that he has been cited by many observers as his possible successor.

One of Mr. Shahroudi’s former students in Qom - now an Iraqi politician - said Mr. Shahroudi is strongly positioned.

“He is relatively young. He is familiar with modern day issues and has impeccable family pedigree,” he said. “The Shiite street wants a dynamic marjaa who can compensate it for the failure of the government.”

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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