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 a new description as emergency repairmen trying to keep 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 al-Maliki's opponents from getting a no-confidence motion.
On Monday, one of the linchpin partners in al-Maliki's government, Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, traveled to Iran for talks, government officials said. A day earlier, al-Sadr urged al-Maliki to "do the right thing" and resign, but it remains unclear whether al-Sadr will bow to Iranian pressure in the end.
A collapse of al-Maliki's government would be a potential stinging blow to Iran's ruling system, which is already nervous about the future of its other critical Middle East ally, Syria's embattled President Bashar Assad. It also presents a rare convergence of interests between Tehran and Washington, which also views the wily 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."
Iran's fingerprints are all over al-Maliki's inner circle.
Iran helped engineer the deal in December 2010 that brought al-Sadr's anti-American bloc into the political fold, ending a nine-month political stalemate and keeping al-Maliki as prime minister.
In April, al-Maliki was given a red carpet welcome during a visit to Tehran, where he had spent some time as an anti-Saddam activist. Iran delivered an even bigger reward to 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 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 al-Sadr — who spent nearly four years in self exile in Iran to avoid American-led forces — signaled he, too, could jump ship and leave al-Maliki's alliance dangerously close to toppling.
Last week, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd who has close ties to Iran and the U.S., 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 al-Maliki's opponents would need a majority of the 325 members to bring down the government.
At least some senior Iraqi political figures believe Iran worked hard behind the scenes to block the no-confidence effort.
"There is some Iranian pressure on the president (Talabani) not to send the letter to parliament (requesting the no-confidence vote) and to support al-Maliki," said a lawmaker of al-Maliki's political bloc, speaking on 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.
Al-Mutlaq said al-Maliki's opponents on Sunday handed Talabani a letter with the signatures of 176 lawmakers, or 13 more than needed to bring down al-Maliki, and demanded that the president call the vote.
On Monday, al-Maliki said in a statement that he received complaints from lawmakers that some signatures were obtained through fraud and extortion, but he did not elaborate.
Referring to those trying to unseat him, al-Maliki said that "those who have forged the signatures or threatened lawmakers" should be brought to justice.
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. Al-Hashemi, who has sought refuge in Turkey, has denied wrongdoing and has said he is the victim of a political vendetta by 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 al-Sadr urging him to avoid dividing Iraq's Shiites over political disputes. Although born in Iran, al-Haeri's main group of followers is in Iraq. He is also seen as al-Sadr's mentor.
On Sunday, 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 al-Sadr not to risk bringing down al-Maliki's Iran-leaning administration.
"This fatwa is directed at al-Sadr," said an aide to al-Maliki. "We are waiting."
The aide also said that both 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 condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to brief media.
The current political tremors, however, are just part of a wider bid for long-term influence by Iran among Iraq's Shiites.
Iran appears to be supporting a member of Tehran's ruling theocracy, Grand Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, as eventual successor for Iraq's 81-year-old Shiite spiritual leader. Such as change would virtually cement Iran's grip on Iraqi affairs and introduce a sharply different philosophy on clerical sway in politics.
Iraq's current Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, rejects a formal political role for the religious establishment, while Shahroudi is a product of Iran's system of "velayat-e-faqih," or rule by Islamic clerics.
But Iran's increasing reach in Iraq may bring some pushback of its own.
Groups such as the Sunnis and Kurds have always been uneasy about the Iran-style blurring of Shiite politics and religions. And some Shiites, including al-Sadr, had gained followers by emphasizing their Arab identity and culture rather than a satellite of Persians.
"Al-Maliki may ride out this crisis," said Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Gulf Research Center based in Geneva. "But there is a price to pay, and that price is more Iranian influence in Iraq. This may come back to bring other problems down the road."
Murphy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Karin Laub and Mazin Yahya in Baghdad contributed reporting.