WASHINGTON -- Iran has for years exerted tremendous influence over Iraq, turning it into essentially a Shiite-led client state under former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But a new protest movement in the country's Shiite-dominated south is a key sign that Tehran's power is waning, as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Maliki's U.S.-backed successor, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, make forceful moves to reclaim Iraqi independence.
Much of Iraq is no longer under the control of the central government in Baghdad. The Islamic State militant group rules large swathes of the Sunni region to the west, and Kurds control their own autonomous region in the northeast. In the Shiite-majority sections of Iraq, however, including Baghdad and the areas to its south and east, a political confrontation with Iran is underway just as the Islamic Republic is engaging the international community like never before through a historic nuclear agreement.
Iraq watchers believe that a popular protest movement calling on Abadi to better handle public services and government corruption is a subtle indication that Iraqis want to beat back Iranian influence in their country.
Sistani's position is a key indicator to follow, those watchers told The Huffington Post. U.S. officials have, in secret documents released in 2011 by Wikileaks, spoken of Sistani as the "greatest political roadblock" for Iranian operatives in Iraq. The Iranian-born ayatollah has unquestioned authority in Iraq and a very different approach to politics from his Iranian counterparts, disavowing their view of a theocratic government or "Wilayat al-Faqih," the rule of the Islamic jurist.
Sistani is based in Najaf, the spiritual capital of the Shiite branch of Islam. After the Iranian revolution of 1979, influence over the global Shiite community shifted from Najaf to Iran's chief religious center of Qom -- in large part because Iraq was ruled by a Sunni minority regime led by Saddam Hussein. But following the U.S. invasion in 2003, power -- and what's thought to be millions in funds from religious tourism and Shiite devotees around the world -- began to flow back to Najaf, historically the more significant site. Sistani and Iran have had a fragile alliance in the years since, one that's been threatened recently because the Iraqi ayatollah has implied that he blames the Iranian client Maliki for losing ground to the Islamic State.
An American source who has worked for years with the Iraqi government said that frustration with Iran helps to explain Sistani's groundbreaking decision last year to call up Shiite "volunteers" to join militias battling Islamic State forces. "One of the reasons Sistani called up the militias was to keep the Iranians out," the source told HuffPost. "He's also trying to push Iranians out of the governance structures."
Iran's clout manifests itself in many ways. They include Tehran's control of a number of the Shiite militias in Iraq, the role of top Iranian General Qassem Suleimani in providing arms for those militias and for the Iraqi army, and Iranian support for a number of top Shiite political figures.
For Sistani and other players in Iraq who would like to see that influence diminished, the protest movement has created an opening, according to an Iraqi government official who spoke to HuffPost on condition of anonymity.
"It's clear that Najaf is very determined to maintain its independence from Iran. Najaf felt it was an opportunity to ride off the back" of the protest movement, the official said.
Sistani called on Abadi last month to respond to the protest movement's demands in a message delivered in an important Friday sermon.
"The government listens to every word of what Najaf says very, very carefully. Every Friday, everyone is listening very closely" to Sistani's prayer message, the Iraqi official told HuffPost.
And Abadi has responded, eliminating a number of government positions -- including that of vice president, costing Maliki the job he gained after U.S. pressure and opposition at home led to his resignation last year. In the Iraqi parliament, there have been calls for Maliki to face trial over his loss of the city of Mosul to Islamic State forces.
Iran's powerful proxies in Iraq are pushing back. The leaders of two of the most powerful and brutal Shiite militias, the Iraqi Hezbollah and the Badr Organization, visited the chief judicial authority recently, reports Kimberly Kagan of the Institute for the Study of War. "The Iranian-backed militias, including Kata’ib Hezbollah, the Badr Organization, and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, all have a vested interest in thwarting PM Abadi’s reforms, especially the attempt to eliminate the vice presidential positions and thereby expel VP Nouri al-Maliki, who has been aligning himself with the militias for months," Kagan wrote in a Sept. 3 post.
Kagan, a former adviser to U.S. generals in Iraq and Afghanistan, suggested that the Iranian-backed militia leaders hoped to pressure Iraq's judiciary and its president into stalling the reforms.
But it looks like Sistani, Abadi and other Iran skeptics are gathering a loose coalition of their own to resist these efforts.
Not all of Iraq's Shiite militias support Iran, noted Phillip Smyth, an expert on Shiite militias at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of the Hizbollah Cavalcade blog on Jihadology.net. Many agree with Sistani in opposing the Iranian ideology of theocratic rule.
That presents an opportunity for the American military planners who are closely watching Iraq as they to identify which partners to work with against the Islamic State -- and who have for months been worried, U.S. officials told HuffPost, that their personnel in Iraq would be vulnerable not only to Islamic State forces but to Iran-backed militants."It wouldn't surprise me if those in the Department of Defense are looking to liaise if not offer some support for [militias] which are both truly Iraqi nationalist and are not proxies of Tehran," Smyth told HuffPost in an email.
The Iraqi population itself may now be galvanized by the latest protest movement to start thinking about the interests of their state rather than those of the various sects, said Iraqi-American activist Zainab Al-Suwaij.
As the executive director of the American Islamic Congress, Al-Suwaij runs conflict resolution centers in Iraq and is in touch with political actors on the ground.
"After the demonstrations in Baghdad and elsewhere throughout the country, the sectarian issue between the Sunnis and the Shiites has become less than before," Al-Suwaij told HuffPost. "It's not about feeling that the Shiites are in control -- the Shiites are also complaining about corruption."
Major political parties have been forced to bow to street pressure and rush to enact reforms, she noted. And she predicted that this time, unlike in the past, Iran will not be able to protect them from popular dissent.
"Iran is no longer as strong as they used to be," Al-Suwaij said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Phillip Smyth as the founder of Jihadology.net. In fact, Smyth is a contributor to the site and the author of its Hizballah Cavalcade blog.