Sadr unusual tour of Riyadh: A way to boost influence in Iraq

Tasnim – Analysts believe that Saudi Arabia and its allies approach towards the Iraqi cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, is an effort to influence Iraq politics in the post-Daesh (known also as ISIS, ISIL) era and ahead of the country’s general elections due to be held in 2018.

The Iraqi Shiite cleric and the head of the Sadrist movement Muqtada al-Sadr has paid official visit to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in rare visit after 11 years.

It seems that Saudis are changing their policy towards Iraq and the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has highlighted this change in his talks with Sadr, noting that the previous administration had ‘made mistakes’ towards relations with Baghdad. Their seriousness about trying to muscle into Iraq was made clear by the warm and public reception they gave to Sadr.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has pledge to pay Baghdad an additional $10 million to help rebuild Iraq, following a meeting with Sadr. They have also discussed “improving trade relations” via a new Saudi consulate in Najaf. Salman and Sadr discussed the future of Iraq and the impact of the 25 September Kurdistan independence referendum. However, both sides enjoy common views about some issues in the region.

Sadr and Saudis share similar views towards Iraqi popular forces who have been very effective in fighting terrorism in the country. Sadr has called for the government to disband the Hashda al-Shaabi. In April he broke with other Shite leaders in the Middle East in calling for Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad to step down.

Many analysts who consider Sadr as a nationalist Iraqi politician, believe that Saudis are trying to manipulate nationalist politicians and groups to strengthen their influence in Iraq.

Regarding the issue, the Middle East Eye website wrote that Sadr have given orders to his followers to remove all anti-Saudi images, slogans and banners from Iraq’s streets.

Many believe that Sadr is seeking to make up for the declining sway of his militia as Hashd al-Shaabi influence is on the rise and he is to enter Riyadh’s orbit because he wants to regain his past clout.

Despite Sadr’s anti-American stance, the United States welcomed the 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.”

According to Washington Post, this kind of political plumage is especially useful as Sadr and his rivals jockey for position ahead of next year’s Iraqi elections.

Saudi visit enables Sadr to present himself as the face of Arab Iraqi Shiism, the US-based newspaper said.

Shireen Hunter wrote in the US based LobeLog news website that in view of the Saudi monarchy’s rather dark record of treating Shiites both in the kingdom itself and elsewhere, including Iraq, this visit is rather unusual.

Muqtada could not have forgotten how Saudi Arabia supported Saddam Hussein who killed several members of his family, including his father Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr and Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, his uncle. As someone who somehow represents Shiites in Iraq, he cannot be oblivious to the fact that, while he was received by Mohammad Bin Salman, the Saudis had the entire Shiite-inhabited city of Al Awamiah in a state of near siege and were planning to execute several Shiite Saudi citizens.

Perhaps weakening Shias in Iraq is the real Saudi reason for its overture to Muqtada, Lobelog concluded.