Iraq summons Saudi envoy over comments on Iran-backed militias

BAGHDAD: Iraq summoned the new Saudi ambassador on Sunday after he suggested Iranian-backed Shi’ite 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 Saudi Arabia and Iran as 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.

In an interview with Iraq’s al-Sumaria TV on Saturday, Saudi envoy Thamer al-Sabhan criticised the Hashid Shaabi, a coalition of mostly Iranian-backed Shia paramilitary groups seen as a bulwark against the militants of Islamic State whose rise has inflamed sectarian tensions in Iraq.

“The refusal by the Kurds and Anbar to let the Hashid Shaabi come to their regions shows that the Hashid is not accepted by Iraqi society,” Sabhan said.

Iraq’s foreign ministry called the remarks “a break of diplomatic protocol and based on inaccurate information”.

“The Hashid Shaabi are fighting terrorism and defending the country’s sovereignty and acting under the umbrella and command of the commander-in-chief of the armed forces,” it said in a statement.

Earlier Iraqi lawmakers accused Sabhan of meddling in domestic affairs, including recent violence in eastern Diyala province where Sunni mosques and residents were attacked in apparent retaliation for blasts targeting Shi’ite militia fighters claimed by Islamic State.

“If such interference is repeated, there will be calls to declare the ambassador persona non grata and demand that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia replace him,” Khalid al-Assadi, a member of parliament’s foreign affairs panel, said by phone.

Local media published similar comments from other lawmakers.

“He should be expelled immediately or else he could meet dire consequences,” Awatef Nemah from the ruling Shia bloc told al-Sumaria, without elaborating.

The reopening of the Saudi embassy in Baghdad has been seen as heralding closer cooperation in the fight against Islamic State militants, who control swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria and have claimed bombings in Saudi Arabia.

But it has also coincided with a fresh escalation of tensions between Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran, longtime regional rivals, after Riyadh executed a prominent Shi’ite cleric this month.

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