Iraq has asked Saudi Arabia to replace its ambassador in Baghdad after he said that Iranian-backed Shia paramilitary units were aggravating tensions with Sunni Muslims in Iraq.
The request made by the Iraqi foreign minister’s office on Sunday is a result of complaints by Iraqis that the Saudi ambassador, Thamer al-Sabhan, is seeking to diminish the influence of Shia politicians in Iraq.
“The presence of Sabhan is an obstacle to the development of relations between Iraq and Saudi Arabia,” Ahmed Jamal, Iraq’s foreign ministry spokesman, said in comments to Al Aahd, a TV channel that belongs to Asaib Ahl al-Haq, an Iranian-backed Shia militia.
Jamal said on Twitter that the foreign ministry was “asking its Saudi counterpart to replace the ambassador of the Saudi Arabian Kingdom in Baghdad”.
Saudi Arabia reopened its embassy in Baghdad in December after keeping it shut since the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
Sabhan was the first Saudi ambassador appointed since the reopening, which was seen as heralding closer cooperation in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group, whose fighters control large expanses of territory in Iraq and Syria and have claimed bombings in Saudi Arabia.
Sabhan has been calling on the Iraqi government to exclude Shia paramilitary groups from its military campaign against ISIL, also known as ISIS, in order to avoid abuses against Sunnis in Iraq.
In recent days, Sabhan repeatedly spoke of a “terrorist plot” to assassinate him after a Shia militia leader, Aws al-Khafaji, said in an interview with a local Iraqi channel that killing the diplomat would be an “honour”.
Sabhan, responding to messages expressing solidarity with him after the Iraqi announcement, said on Twitter: “I am a servant of this [Saudi] leadership which is seeking to assist the truth and the well being of Muslims, may God preserve it.”
The Iraqi foreign ministry denied on Monday that a plot to kill Sabhan had been uncovered.
In an interview on the Dubai-based, Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV station, he said Saudi Arabia’s policies on Iraq would not change.