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Iraq summons Saudi ambassador over criticism of Iran-backed militias

The powerful Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation militias have strongly criticised Saudi Arabia and its ambassador [AFP]

Date of publication: 24 January, 2016

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Iraqi-Saudi relations soured on Sunday as Baghdad handed Riyadh's envoy a letter of protest, after he made comments criticising the country's powerful Shia anti-IS militias suggesting Sunni Iraqis oppose them.
Iraq's foreign ministry summoned Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Baghdad on Sunday to protest his "interference" in the country's internal affairs over remarks on militia forces fighting the Islamic State group.

Thamer al-Sabhan is the first Baghdad-based Saudi ambassador in a quarter century, but while full diplomatic relations are restored, there is still significant hostility to Riyadh in some quarters and there have already been calls for the envoy's expulsion.

The foreign ministry summoned Sabhan "to inform him of its official protest regarding his media statements that represented interference in Iraqi internal affairs," it said in a statement.

Sabhan said in interview with Al-Sumaria television that the Popular Mobilisation paramilitary forces, which are dominated by Iran-backed Shia militias, are not wanted in Sunni Arab and Kurdish areas as "they are not accepted by the sons of Iraqi society".

Iraq turned to Shia militia forces in 2014 to help counter an IS onslaught that overran large areas north and west of Baghdad, and they have played a key role in the fight against the jihadists.

Iraq turned to Shia militia forces to help counter an IS onslaught, but the militias and their affiliates have also carried out abuses

But militias and their affiliates have also carried out abuses including summary executions, kidnappings and destruction of property, and many members of the Sunni Arab and Kurdish minorities view them with suspicion.

The foreign ministry defended the Popular Mobilisation, "which is fighting terrorism and defending the sovereignty of the country, and works under the umbrella of the state."

Shia politicians had earlier reacted angrily to the Saudi ambassador's comments, but the country's largest Sunni bloc defended him.

"The remarks of the Saudi ambassador indicate clear hostility and blatant interference in Iraqi affairs," Khalaf Abdulsamad, the head of the Dawa parliamentary list, said in a statement.

'Major insult'

"His talking about the Popular Mobilisation in this way is considered a major insult," Abdulsamad said, calling on the foreign ministry to "preserve the dignity of the Iraqi state and summon the Saudi ambassador and expel him from Iraq."

Alia Nasayif, an MP from the State of Law bloc, said the ambassador's remarks "included clear attempts to provoke sectarian strife".

And Popular Mobilisation 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."

"The Iraqi outrage is an attempt to absorb the anger in the ranks of the National Alliance and the Popular Mobilisation against the ambassador," said Firas al-Ithawi, political analyst, to The New Arab.

"In order to pre-empt the threats by pro-Iranian factions against the Saudi ambassador, the ambassador was summoned [by the government] and handed a letter of protest," he added.

Sabhan's comments were not universally panned

Among Iraqi Shia Muslims, Saudi Arabia is widely viewed as a supporter of extremists and opponent of their community.

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 Shia 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 Shia majority and Sunni minority, which ruled the country under Saddam Hussein, with tens of thousands killed in sectarian violence over the past decade.

The United Nations said last week that more than 18,000 Iraqi civilians had been killed in the previous two years, many due to an upsurge in violence with the rise of IS.

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