NAJAF, Iraq (AP) — When Iraq's top Shiite cleric underwent surgery for a fractured bone in January, it sent shivers around the country and beyond. "May God heal Iraq," stated the caption to a photo of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani that circulated online.
Frantic supporters shared prayers. Anti-government protesters hung photos of the black-turbaned cleric with a long white beard and bushy eyebrows, declaring, "The hearts of the revolutionaries are with you." Al-Sistani's well-wishers included officials from Iran and the United States, bitter rivals for influence in Iraq.
The incident put into focus the question: What will happen after al-Sistani, who turns 90 this year, is gone? The question has gained added importance for an Iraq deeply embroiled in U.S.-Iranian tensions and gripped by months of anti-government protests.
Al-Sistani's death would rob Iraq of a powerful voice whose sway among followers and positions against foreign intervention are believed to have curbed Iranian influence. He sought to restrain Iranian-backed Shiite militias accused of abuses and moderate the government, repeatedly stating that the Iraqi people are the source of authority.
Iran, analysts say, will try to exploit the vacuum to expand its influence among Iraq's Shiites.
The Iranians "don't want another al-Sistani ... They don't want somebody who is strong, who overshadows their own supreme leader," said Abbas Kadhim, director of the Iraq Initiative at the Atlantic Council. While none of al-Sistani's potential successors are "in Iran's pockets," Tehran would benefit from a weak figure.
"If this person is silent and doesn't intervene, people will look elsewhere for guidance," Kadhim said.
Iran's post-al-Sistani ambitions may be complicated by Iraq's wave of protests since October, which showed a vein of resentment among Shiites to Tehran's power. Many Iraqis have also been angered at how U.S. and Iranian hostilities have played out on their soil, including the January U.S. drone strike that killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad.
One cleric in the Shiite holy city of Najaf said he felt "scared for Iraq" when he learned of al-Sistani's surgery. When he dies, Iran could use its "revolutionary slogans" to try to attract followers to its supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, he said.
But he said that al-Sistani's support for peaceful protesters strengthened Najaf's hand among the public against Iran's forays. "Things weren't that complicated for Iran" before, he said.
Al-Sistani has been a counterweight to Iran not only in politics. He represents a school of thought in Shiism opposed to direct rule by clerics, the system in place in Iran, where Khamenei has the final word in all matters.
Al-Sistani and Khamenei both hold the rank of marja taqlid — or "object of emulation," a figure that pious Shiites revere as a spiritual guide. But the majority of Iraq's Shiites follow al-Sistani, as do many in Iran and around the world.
Fending off Iran is a concern for many in the Najaf Hawza, the esteemed institution of Shiite religious learning from which al-Sistani's successor will emerge.
"Iran ... wants a political stance (in Iraq) that supports it," said a senior cleric there. "It's the Hawza that creates balance. Politicians have lost that balance. If the Hawza loses it too, then Iran will have won both on the religious front and on the political front."