Iran and Iraq are at odds again, in a struggle for dominance of Shiite Islam between the competing centres of religious authority, the holy cities of Qom in Iran and Najaf in Iraq. The outcome will resonate across the Middle East – and probably beyond. By Ed Blanche

Iran’s drive to absorb Iraq into its sphere of influence has accelerated since the US military withdrawal from the Land Between The Rivers in December 2011 and been given greater urgency by the threat against Tehran’s key Arab ally, the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad.

The prospect that Iran’s man in Baghdad, Shiite Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, could be unseated in a burgeoning rift with Sunnis, rival Shiites and Kurds has galvanised Tehran in recent days to take steps to ensure that no such thing occurs and Maliki stays in power, and under Tehran’s thumb.

But there’s an even more important and probably far-reaching Iranian effort under way by the Tehran leadership and Iran’s powerful Shiite clergy: ensuring that the holy city of Qom south of Tehran is the religious centre for the world’s Shiite Muslims, rather than the Iraqi city of Najaf, 125 miles south of Baghdad.

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