The battle for Bahraini hearts and minds will be fought by Iran… and Iraq

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Those who see the Bahraini uprising in the context of a larger contest for Middle Eastern supremacy between Iran and Saudi Arabia with desultory U.S. involvement are missing the potentially crucial role played by a fourth player: Iraq.

A little background, first. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi holy city of Najaf has reemerged as center of the Shi’ite world, reclaiming that position from the Iranian seminary town of Qom. Freed from Saddam’s straitjacket, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most powerful figure in Iraqi Shi’ism has vastly expanded his international appeal. His piety and (for the most part) apolitical outlook makes him a much more appealing figure for Shi’ites than the very political Iranian ayatollahs. His following has grown dramatically in Iran, and in Bahrain.

And those Shi’ites seeking a more activist hero can now turn to another Iraqi, Moqtada al-Sadr, who combines the religious legacy of his Grand Ayatollah father and uncle with the political force of his Mahdi Army militia.

So Bahraini Shi’ites seeking succor—spiritual or temporal—are as likely to look to the north, toward Iraq, as to Iran in the east. A steady stream of Bahraini Shi’ite political leaders have visited Iraq since the fall of Saddam, there to build contacts with Iraqi political parties and pay homage to Sistani.

Now both Sistani and Sadr have spoken forcefully about the brutal crackdown in Bahrain by the Sunni royal family. Sistani, who rarely comments about matters outside Iran, has called on the Khalifas to stop killing innocents. And Sadr’s Iraqi supporters, at his instructions, have demonstrated in the streets to protest the Bahraini crackdown. Not to be left out, Iraqi’s Shi’ite Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has weighed in on the side of the Bahraini Shi’ites.

That the Iraqi Shi’ite leadership is growing more vocal about global Shi’ite affairs is bad news for Tehran. Iran’s ayatollahs have as much to fear from Sistani’s growing clout as they do Saudi Arabia. The Najaf ‘hawza’ (seminary) was for decades suppressed by Saddam, allowing Qom, a relatively minor outpost in the Shi’ite world, to become an alternate power center. Now Najaf is reclaiming its primacy: many non-Iranian religious scholars have moved from Qom to Najaf, attracted by the city’s historic importance (it contains the sect’s holiest shrine and its most important cemetery) as well as Sistani’s prestige.

This isn’t just about Iran v. Saudi, people. It’s just as much about Najaf v. Qom.