Iraq’s Shiite religious parties, most with ties to Iran, have reestablished a political bloc called the Iraqi National Alliance. Among its founders are Ahmad Chalabi, the revered darling of US neoconservatives such as Richard Perle and Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute; Muqtada al-Sadr, the brooding, mercurial mullah who has mysteriously retreated to Qom, Iran’s religious capital, for quick-study lessons on how to become an ayatollah; and, of course, Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, one of the founders of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which has changed its name but not its spots. SCIRI, the anchor of the new coalition, is now called the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), but it still acts as an arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which founded it in 1982, and its paramilitary Badr Brigade — also a part of the new Iraqi alliance — is a terrorist unit that operates pro-Iran death squads in Iraq.

Let’s sort this out.

First of all, although Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has so far opted not to join the pan-Shiite religious alliance, American Pollyannas who see Maliki as a nationalist, pro-American ally are wrong. Like the new INA alliance, Maliki is in thrall to the Iranians, too, only slightly less so. His secretive, cult-like Dawa Party — which has split and split again — provides nearly all of his inner-circle allies and advisers, and according to Iraqi sources Maliki is heavily vested in ties to Iran and its intelligence services. He shrewdly, though unconvincingly, positioned himself and his new party, State of Law, as a pro-unity, nationalist party during the January provincial elections, but although Maliki tried to find allies among secular Iraqis, religious Sunnis, and Kurds, nearly all of his votes came from Arab Shiites. He got votes from Iraqis who were unhappy with their country’s religious-right drift and who rejected ISCI and its allies, in part by lavishing patronage to newly created tribal councils in the Shiite-majority provinces. As a result, Maliki has been riding high of late, and a well-placed former Iraqi official told me that Maliki felt strong enough to tell the founders of the Iraqi National Alliance that he’d refuse to join unless they let him run the show, with a guarantee that he’d be reelected as prime minister if the Alliance wins a majority in the January, 2010, election. Maliki may or may not have overestimated his strength, but in any case he may decide to join the Alliance at a later date — or, alternately, he might join them after the election in a coalition government. In either case, Iran will be the big winner, especially as US forces move out.

A remarkable piece by David Ignatius in the Washington Post describes how, behind the scenes, Iran is using its intelligence service and its ties to Maliki to increase its influence:

“Iran’s links with Maliki are so close, said this Iraqi intelligence source, that the prime minister uses an Iranian jet with an Iranian crew for his official travel. The Iranians are said to have sent Maliki an offer to help his Dawa Party win at least 49 seats in January’s parliamentary elections if Maliki will make changes in his government that Iran wants.”

According to Ignatius, forensic evidence from last week’s truck bombings in Baghdad reveals that Iran or its agents may have been behind the devastating attacks that blew a hole in downtown Baghdad last week:

“Forensic evidence points to a possible Iranian role, according to an Iraqi intelligence source, [who] said that signatures of the C-4 explosive residues that have been found at the bomb sites are similar to those of Iranian-made explosives that have been captured in Kut, Nasiriyah, Basra and other Iraqi cities since 2006.”

Ignatius also reports that Gen. Mohammad Shalwani, the head of Iraq’s intelligence service, quit last week, “because of what he viewed as Maliki’s attempts to undermine his service and allow Iranian spies to operate freely.” As a result, key members of the intelligence service are “fleeing for safety in Jordan, Egypt and Syria — fearing that they will be targets of Iranian hit teams if they remain in Iraq.” (Note: the Iraqi intelligence service, largely established by the US CIA after the invasion, built a professional cadre of spies and intelligence officers, but it was undermined by parallel intelligence services created by Maliki, with Iran’s assistance.)

The new Iraqi National Alliance is designed to replace the old United Iraqi Alliance, the bloc of Shiite religious parties that emerged as the dominant vote-getter in the 2005 parliamentary elections. (The UIA was assembled with the blessing of crusty old Ayatollah Ali Sistani of Najaf, the bearded mullah who decided that Iraq’s religious Shiites ought to run together. So far, Sistani has shown the good sense to stay out of politics this time around, but my guess is that he’s quite busy behind the scenes trying to mend fences between Maliki and the new alliance.)

Not surprisingly, the new alliance has committed itself to upholding the primacy of the Shiite religious leaders of Najaf and it has included in its platform various conservative, moralistic planks that would warm the hearts of the American Christian right and other preachers like Bill Bennett. And, of course, it has declared that it will “not establish relations with the Zionist entity.” (That would be Israel.)

Notably, the two most powerful leaders of the Alliance are in Iran: Sadr, who’s in Qom, and Hakim, stricken with cancer and being treated in a Tehran hospital. It’s important to note that top Iranian officials, including Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Leader, have been pushing hard (and openly) to reconstitute the Shiite religious alliance in Iraq for the 2010 elections. Hakim’s condition has lately taken a turn for the worse, but his family is still the most powerful force inside ISCI and, now, the Alliance, and his son Ammar al-Hakim may emerge as ISCI’s official new leader. If Ignatius is right, and the Iranian agents or their allies were responsible for the truck bombs that devastated the Iraqi foreign ministry and the finance ministry last week, then perhaps that was a not-so-subtle warning to Maliki. In any case, the bombings have weakened Maliki at a critical moment, shredding his image as a law-n-order prime minister and making him look ridiculous for having asserted too quickly that Iraq is in good hands.

In light of the role of Chalabi in the Alliance, let’s pay attention closely to the reaction of his former Washington allies, such as Perle, Pletka, Douglas Feith, and Paul Wolfowitz. Among the most militant advocates of Israel, they can’t be happy about Chalabi signing on to a bloc that opposes the “Zionist entity.” Among the most vocal denouncers of Iran, they can’t be happy about Chalabi’s role in helping to assemble an overtly pro-Iran bloc in Iraqi politics. My guess is they’ll be silent.

The electoral prospects of the new Alliance are questionable. Like the former UIA, the members of the INA are a disparate and quarrelsome bunch, and many of the lesser components will chafe under ISCI’s likely bossy role. More nationalist formations like Sadr’s bloc and Fadhila, a Sadrist offshoot strong in the south of Iraq, may resist ISCI’s dominance. And all of them will have to overcome the fact that many Iraqis are sick and tired of Shiite religious claptrap (and of Iran). Perhaps that explains why Maliki is staying out of the Alliance so far: the prime minister can run once again as a born-again nationalist, with his tribal council support, while the Shiite religious bloc scoops up the easy-to-command votes of rural Shiites who think they’re voting for Allah. Perhaps in order to downplay its role, and Iran’s, ISCI has allowed Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a member of an anti-Maliki faction of Dawa who served as prime minister before Maliki, to lead the new Alliance. But Jaafari is hardly a political power, and — unlike Sadr and ISCI’s Badr — he has no men with guns.

Needless to say, it’s way, way too late for President Obama to do anything about this, though he ought to keep his promise to involve the international community in a last-ditch effort to rebalance Iraqi politics away from dominance by the Shiite religious parties. Still, as I’ve been writing for years, Iran has the upper hand in Iraq. As Ignatius reports:

“Should the Americans try to restore order? The top Iraqi intelligence source answered sadly that it was probably wiser to ‘stay out of it and be safe.’ When pressed about what his country would look like in five years, absent American help, he answered bluntly: ‘Iraq will be a colony of Iran.'”

True, that.