What’s behind Muqtada al-Sadr’s visit to Saudi Arabia?
London- Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al- Sadr’s visit to Saudi Arabia drew mixed reactions in Iraq, adding another layer to the complex relationship between Baghdad and Riyadh.
Inside Iraq, Sadr’s visit was viewed as an attempt by the influential cleric to distance himself from his former patron Iran before the April 2018 parliamentary elections.
Sadr has attempted to present himself as a nationalist leader whose decision-making is independent from Tehran. His parliamentary bloc is likely to attract the votes of Sunnis as well as Shias who do not want their country controlled by Iran.
Sadr’s visit was strongly criticised by pro-Iran politicians in Iraq, including Shia cleric Watheq al-Battat, who branded him as “Muqtada Al Saud, not al-Sadr,” suggesting that he had parted ways from his family’s tradition and became a follower of the Saudi royal family.
Sadr’s supporters, however, saw the visit as an attempt to emphasise Iraq’s Arabic roots, regardless of faith or confession, while advocating neighbourly relations.
Reactions were also mixed inside Iraq’s Sunni community. Some Sunnis say Sadr is genuine in his claim of being a nationalist leader but others accuse him of sectarianism.
The first militia he formed, the Mahdi Army, was accused of atrocious acts against Sunnis, leading Sadr to dismantle it, saying that some of its members were no longer acting on his behalf.
Sadr formed the Saraya al-Salam (Peace Brigades) militia in 2014 to combat the threat of Islamic State militants but some of those militiamen faced accusations of killing and torturing Sunni civilians.
Sadr arrived in Saudi Arabia on July 30 and met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz and other top Saudi officials to discuss issues of common interest, Saudi state news agency SPA reported.
Ties between Baghdad and Riyadh were cut following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait during the rule of Iraq’s former President Saddam Hussein.
Although Saddam was toppled by the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and replaced by a pro-American government, ties between Baghdad and Riyadh remained icy.
Pressure by the United States on Iraq and Saudi Arabia failed to thaw relations due to Baghdad’s close ties to Tehran, which is Riyadh’s arch-foe in the region.
Since 2015, however, there has been a gradual — and sometimes stumbling — improvement of ties after what Saudi officials said was a push by Riyadh for rapprochement with a number of countries in the region.
In June, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and several senior officials, including Interior Minister Qasim Mohammad Jalal al-Araji, who is known for his strong ties to Iran, visited Saudi Arabia and met with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
The visit was hailed as a “quantitative leap” in relations with Iraq and Saudi Arabia announced the countries were setting up a coordination council to upgrade ties.
Despite Sadr’s anti-American rhetoric, the United States welcomed the Shia cleric’s visit to Saudi Arabia. “Both Saudi Arabia and Iraq are solid partners of the United States,” an unnamed US State Department official told the Abu-Dhabi-based National newspaper. “We welcome strong relations between the two countries and continue to support their efforts and outreach in this regard.”
Although Sadr is not part of the Iraqi government, he is an influential member of Iraq’s post-2003 ruling class and has a bloc in parliament. He was sometimes viewed as the country’s kingmaker following general elections.
“The Saudis have long been interested in exploring Shia options in Iraq,” Neil Partrick, editor of Saudi Arabian Foreign Policy: Conflict and Cooperation, told the Financial Times.
Andrew Bernard wrote on the website the American Interest: “The Saudi meeting with Sadr should be a reminder that the Sunni-Shia split doesn’t always determine regional politics.”
In addition to Sadr, Saudi Arabia is also expected to receive prominent Iraqi political leader and Shia cleric Ammar al-Hakim, Al-Hayat daily reported.
Hakim recently resigned as president of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, one of the most influential pro-Iran parties in Iraq and which he founded. After leaving that party, he established the National Wisdom Movement, which he said was meant to serve as a party for all Iraqis.
Like Sadr, Hakim is viewed to be presenting himself as a candidate who is independent from Iranian influence. Regardless of the intentions of the Iraqi leaders, the Iranians appeared wary.
“While the Iranian government and media outlets affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps largely refrained from commenting on Sadr’s trip and his meeting with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, some conservative newspapers and Iranian analysts cautioned that the Saudi government is attempting to court Iraqi Shia leaders to influence Iraqi politics at the expense of Iran’s interests,” wrote Ahmad Majidyar on the website of the Middle East Institute.