Iraq summons Saudi ambassador over Shia militia comment

Envoy says presence of Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq’s fight against ISIL is exacerbating sectarian tensions.

Ambassador Thamer al-Sabhan (L) submitted his credentials to Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari on January 14 [File:AP]

Iraq’s foreign ministry has summoned Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in Baghdad over accusations of meddling in Iraq’s domestic affairs, a statement by the ministry said.

The Saudi ambassador, who was recently installed, had said that the presence of Iranian-backed Shia militias in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group was exacerbating sectarian tensions in Iraq.

Enmity between Sunnis and Shias in the Middle East has flared recently as regional conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen deepen long-standing rifts.

Saudi Arabia executed a Shia religious leader this month, infuriating Shias around the region and arch foe Iran.

Iraq’s Shia militias asked to fight ISIL in Ramadi

In an interview with Iraq’s al-Sumaria TV on Saturday, Saudi Ambassador Thamer al-Sabhan said the Hashid Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Front), a coalition of mostly Iranian-backed Shia paramilitary groups set up in 2014 to fight ISIL, should leave the fight against the group to Iraq’s army and official security forces in order to avoid aggravating sectarian tensions.

The reopening in December of the Saudi embassy in Baghdad, closed in 1990 after Iraq invaded Kuwait, was seen as heralding closer cooperation in the fight against ISIL, which controls territory in Iraq and in Syria and has claimed bombings in Saudi Arabia.

At least 40 people were killed earlier this month and nine Sunni mosques firebombed in the eastern Iraqi town of Muqdadiya in apparent retaliation for two blasts there targeting Shia militia fighters, which left 23 people dead.

“Interference in the Hashid Shaabi, speaking about Muqdadiya, and other issues – it’s not his business… he must respect diplomatic customs,” said Khalid al-Assadi, a member of parliament’s foreign affairs panel.

The rise of Sunni ISIL has worsened sectarian conflict in Iraq, which is majority Shia.

Assadi said he had asked the foreign ministry to summon Sabhan to express politicians’ objections.

“If such interference is repeated there will be calls to announce the ambassador persona non grata and demand the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia replace him,” Assadi said by phone.

Local media published similar comments from other Shia MPs.

“He should be expelled immediately or else he could meet dire consequences,” Awatef Nemah from the ruling Shia bloc told al-Sumaria, without elaborating.

Source: Al Jazeera, Reuters