In recent months, the contacts between Iraqi and Saudi leaders are in full swing. Just two weeks after his visit to Saudi Arabia, the influential Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr visited Saudi ally, United Arab Emirates on Sunday and held talks with the country's high-ranking officials.
In June, Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi traveled to Riyadh and met with Saudi King Salman for the second time during this year. The developments indicate that Arab countries try to embrace the Shiite Iraq in order to curb Iran’s influence.
"We don't want to be part of any axis," Abadi said as he left Baghdad for Riyadh on June 19, referring to the rivalry between Iran and the Saudi Arabia. "We want to coordinate with these states to continue fighting terrorism," Iraq's Prime Minister added.
After meeting with the Saudi King that was focused on exploring “opportunities to support economic and trade relations,” both leaders expressed "their happiness over a qualitative leap in relations."
To Iran that has expanded its influence in Iraq, particularly in recent years through its active involvement in the fight against ISIS, it should be very worrying that its Shiite neighbor is being dragged toward Arab rivals. After Abadi’s trip to Saudi Arabia, a bigger surprise for Tehran followed.
At Saudis’ invitation, the popular Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr travelled to Riyadh on July 30 and met Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. A few days later, on August 13, he traveled to UAE to discuss Iraq’s relationship with the high ranking officials of the rich Persian Gulf country.
The leader of a notorious militia, the Army of Mahdi, was once fighting U.S. forces in Iraq and was considered Tehran’s henchman by Washington. In 2007, he even went to Iran and lived there for 5 years, supposedly to continue his religious studies, but many believe that he was escaping arrest by American troops or assassination by his political opponents.
Sadr now has been signaling his willingness to open up towards U.S. allies and Iran’s rivals in the region. “After the Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the most popular Shiite cleric in Iraq, Muqtada al-Sadr is probably the second person who has the most influence over millions of people on Iraqi streets,” said Alireza Nourizadeh, an Iranian journalist and expert of the Arab world living in London in an interview with Radio Farda.
Unlike other famous Shiite clerics who had close ties to Iran, a non-Arab country, Sadr always had been emphasizing his Arab identity. With his trip to Saudi capital Riyadh and UAE, “he wants to prove his independence from Iran and convince Iraq’s neighbors that he does not follow Tehran,” Nourizadeh adds.
According to him and other experts, Sadr’s trips were also financially motivated. Iranian journalist Nourizadeh believes that Sadr wanted Iraqi guest workers to be treated fairly in UAE. And after his trip to Saudi Arabia, Sadr's office announced that Riyadh would donate $10 million in aid to the Iraqi government to help Iraqis displaced by the fighting with Islamic State and also consider possible investments in Shiite regions of southern Iraq.
Some observers interpreted the intensified contacts between Iraqis and Saudis differently and suggested that Iraqis try to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
“Iran and Saudis do not need any mediator,” Nourizadeh said and pointed at the fact that currently several Iranian diplomats and the representative of Iran’s Supreme Leader are in Saudi Arabia to coordinate the Hajj ceremony for Iranian pilgrims and they could talk directly to Saudis. “Both countries are aware of the root of the crisis which is Iran’s military interference in Yemen.”
Sadr’s tone after his trip to Riyadh was also not the one of a mediator. Aligned with the desire of his hosts, the Shiite cleric demanded the dissolution of Hashd al-Shaabi, the so-called Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella organization of paramilitary Shi’ite fighters that was established in 2014 with the goal of fighting ISIS.
With approximately more than 100,000 fighters, PMF is indeed Tehran’s new winning card in Iraq. Supported and led by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, these forces have been playing a crucial role in fighting ISIS, including in the battle over the Iraqi city of Mosul.
Iraq’s Sunni neighbors are now concerned that the PMF will allow Iran to reinforce its influence in Iraq more than ever and like to see the forces to be dissolved. However, it does not seem that the Iraqi government would agree to this demand.
Last year, Iraq's parliament recognized PMF as a legitimate force and placed its members on payroll, and in response to Sadr’s recent demand, Iraqi prime minister, Haidar al-Abadi, said recently, “The Hashd al-Shaabi…is for Iraq and will not be dissolved.”
Whatever the Saudis and Persian Gulf states do, "Iran will stay the key player in Iraq for at least the next 10 years," said Wathiq al-Hashimi, chairman of the Iraqi Group for Strategic Studies think-tank in an interview with Reuters.