Iraq summons new Saudi ambassador over criticism of Shiite militia
BAGHDAD – Iraq summoned the new Saudi ambassador on Sunday after he suggested Iranian-backed Shiite militias were exacerbating sectarian tensions and should leave the fight against Islamic State to the Iraqi army and official security forces.
Baghdad's move underscores the depth of enmity between Sunni and Shiite Muslim powers as sectarian conflicts rage in Syria, Yemen and Iraq. Riyadh only reopened its embassy in Baghdad last month, shut down since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
Iraqi Shiite lawmakers responded angrily Sunday to the Saudi ambassador's criticism, with some calling for his expulsion less than a month after he arrived.
Thamer al-Sabhan is the first Baghdad-based Saudi ambassador in a quarter century, but while full diplomatic relations are restored, many Iraqi Shiites view Riyadh as a supporter of jihadist groups and an enemy of their community.
Sabhan said in interview with Al-Sumaria television that the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary forces, which are dominated by Iran-backed Shiite militias, are not wanted in Sunni Arab and Kurdish areas as "they are not accepted by the sons of Iraqi society".
Iraq turned to Shiite militia forces in 2014 to help counter the Islamic State jihadist group's onslaught, which had overrun large areas north and west of Baghdad.
While they have been a key part of the anti-ISIS fight and are widely supported by Iraqi Shiites, many members of the Sunni Arab and Kurdish minorities view at least some of the Hashed al-Shaabi's main forces as hostile.
"The remarks of the Saudi ambassador indicate clear hostility and blatant interference in Iraqi affairs (and) his talking about the Hashed al-Shaabi in this way is considered a major insult," Khalaf Abdulsamad, the head of the Dawa parliamentary list, said in a statement.
The foreign ministry should "preserve the dignity of the Iraqi state and summon the Saudi ambassador and expel him from Iraq," he said.
Alia Nasayif, an MP from the State of Law bloc, said the ambassador's remarks "included clear attempts to provoke sectarian strife".
And Hashed al-Shaabi spokesman Ahmed al-Assadi termed Sabhan an "ambassador of a state that supports terrorism" and called for Iraq to "expel this ambassador and punish him for his statements."
But Sabhan's comments were not universally panned, with the Alliance of Iraqi Forces, the main Sunni Arab bloc in parliament, describing his remarks as "very natural" and criticising the "political campaign" against him.
Sabhan's tenure in Iraq, which officially began when he presented his credentials 10 days ago, was off to a rocky start even before his recent remarks.
Saudi Arabia's execution of activist and Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr at the beginning of the month sparked widespread anti-Riyadh anger, protests and calls for Sabhan to be kicked out of Iraq.
Iraq has been plagued by years of tensions between its Shiite majority and Sunni minority, which ruled the country under Saddam Hussein, with thousands killed in sectarian violence.
The United Nations said last week that more 18,000 Iraqi civilians had been killed in the previous two years, many due to an upsurge in violence with the rise of ISIS.