Iraq offers to help defuse Iran-Saudi rift

The move may be an indication that Iraq, a predominantly Shiite country, is worried about the spread of Islamic State, as it walks the line along the latest sectarian dispute. 

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
Amel Al-Hajjar, left, and Khadija Falih, both from Iraq, participate in a rally in front of the Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington Tuesday to protest the mass executions in Saudi Arabia. Last Saturday Saudi Arabia executed Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and 46 others convicted of terror charges, the largest mass execution carried out by the kingdom since 1980.

Iraq has proposed facilitating talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia after the two countries dissolved diplomatic ties last weekend.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari on Wednesday offered to mediate a dispute that has sent ripples of reaction across the Middle East and elevated international concerns of a deepening sectarian divide between Shiites and Sunnis.

The comments were made during a press conference in Tehran with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on hand, during which al-Jaafari suggested that Iraq’s involvement could help “alleviate tensions,” the BBC reports.

"This responsibility has been given to us and we have been active from the early moments to lessen tensions to prevent a disaster from happening that could affect the entire region," he said.

The row between the predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia and its Shiite neighbor Iran began on Saturday, when the Saudis executed 47 people including top Saudi Shiite cleric Sheik Nimr al-Nimr.

The Saudi government had accused al-Nimr of links to terrorism and inciting violence, despite reports that the Saudi religious figure was peaceful.

Crowds of Iranian demonstrators subsequently attacked the Saudi embassy and a consulate in Iran, and on Sunday the Saudi government cut diplomatic ties to its longtime opponent, a move that was followed by several of its Sunni-dominated allies, including Sudan and Bahrain. 

The fact that Iraq sent the foreign minister to Iran may be an indication that the predominantly Shiite country is worried that the rift between its neighbors could reverse progress made in the fight against Islamic State (IS) and send the Middle East into disarray, Reuters reported.

Iraq has received military assistance from Iran against IS but has also recently made attempts to strengthen relations with the Saudi monarchy. Last week, the Saudi government sent an ambassador to meet with Iraqi officials for the first time in more than two decades, The Associated Press reported.

Iraqi Prime Minister Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi has so far rejected calls from an influential Shiite militia that has assisted Iraq in the fight against Islamic State to shutter a newly-opened Saudi embassy in Iraq, according to Reuters.

Al-Jaafari said at the press conference that Iraq is trying to build on newly established diplomatic connections, while he assured the Saudi monarch that the embassy would remain protected and in place, Reuters reports.

Abadi gained power last year and has recently tried to bridge relations with Iraqi Sunnis, the country’s minority populace, Reuters said. 

The prime minister is also trying to gain favor among Iraqi Sunnis in an effort to keep them from joining IS’s military campaign, which some analysts say helped Iraq recently retake a portion of Ramadi from Islamic militants.

"Abadi is caught between two fires,” said Mustafa Alani, the director of security and defense studies at the Gulf Research Center think tank, to Reuters. “The Sunni hardliners and the Shi'ite hardliners.”

Saudi Arabia has yet to respond to the Iraqi foreign minister’s offer, Reuters reported. 

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