Iraq summons Saudi envoy over ‘meddling’

January 24, 2016  

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

The Saudi ambassador, who was only installed ten days ago, had said that the involvement of Iranian-backed Shia militias in fighting against Islamic State (ISIS) was exacerbating sectarian tensions in Iraq, according to Al Jazeera.

In an interview with Iraq’s Al-Sumaria TV on Saturday, Ambassador Thamer al-Sabhan said that the Hashid Shaabi, a coalition of mostly Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias in Iraq, should desist and let Iraq’s army handle the fight, in order to avoid making sectarian tensions worse. The Shi’ite forces, which have been fighting ISIS since 2014, are not wanted in Sunni Arab and Kurdish areas, since “they are not accepted by the sons of Iraqi society,” he said.

This did not go down well with some prominent Iraqi lawmakers.

“Interference in the Hashid Shaabi…it’s not his business…he must respect diplomatic customs,” said Khalid al-Assadi, a member of parliament’s foreign affairs panel. “If such interference is repeated there will be calls to declare the ambassador persona non grata and demand the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia replace him.”

Khalaf Abdulsamad, the head of the Dawa parliamentary list, said that the ambassador’s remarks “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.” The foreign ministry should “preserve the dignity of the Iraqi state and summon the Saudi ambassador and expel him from Iraq,” he said.

The tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia thus appeared to be casting a shadow over the improving relations between Iraq and the Saudis, as enmity between Sunnis and Shias in the Middle East continues to manifest itself in regional conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

The Saudi embassy in Baghdad was recently reopened after 25 years, in what was seen as a sign that the countries would be cooperating more closely in the fight against ISIS. However, many Iraqi Shi’ites view the Sunni Saudis as enemies of Shia Islam.

Saudi Arabia executed an activist and Shi’ite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, on January 1, sparking anti-Saudi anger, protests and calls for Sabhan to be kicked out of Iraq. 

Nimr was a driving force of the protests that broke out in 2011 in Eastern Province, where the Shi’ite minority of Saudi Arabia complains of marginalization. He was arrested in 2012, with the Interior Ministry describing him as an “instigator of sedition.”

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