Iraq's PM looks to keep peace as tensions rise between Saudi Arabia and Iran

BAGHDAD - While many Iraqi Shiites took to the streets in outrage over Saudi Arabia's execution of a prominent Shiite cleric, the country's prime minister has had to walk a more cautious line, trying to contain Iraq's own explosive sectarian tensions.

See Full Article

The execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr has inflamed the sectarian divide across the region. Shiite-led Iran has been the most vocal in its condemnation, and protesters stormed Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran over the weekend. That prompted Sunni-led Saudi Arabia to cut diplomatic relations with Iran, and the kingdom's allies have lined up behind it, either cutting or reducing their ties with Tehran.

The government of Iraq, however, is straining to keep the peace amid the regional tumult. Iran is a key ally of the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, has helped it in the fight against the Islamic State group, and supports powerful Shiite militias in the country.

At the same time, as the fight against IS extremists enters its second year, Iraq is grappling with the worst political and security crises since the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011. Only last week, Saudi Arabia sent an ambassador to Baghdad for the first time in 25 years to try to improve its relationship with Iraq.

In Washington, Brett McGurk, special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spent most of Monday on the phone trying to ease tensions in the region.

"We are encouraging a de-escalation, because any time you have regional polarization, regional escalation, it obviously can cause difficulties and it opens up seams for extremists on all sides to take advantage of the situation," McGurk told reporters Tuesday.

In a sign of the Iraqi government's caution, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi issued a statement expressing regret over al-Nimr's execution and warning that such actions would "bring more destruction and devastation."

His office followed that Tuesday with a call for unity among Iraqis. Regional tensions should be faced "wisely, responsibly and rationally in order to preserve the security and stability of Iraq," according to a statement from al-Abadi's office.

A day earlier, thousands of Shiites gathered a few hundred meters (yards) from his office and called for the government to sever diplomatic ties with Riyadh. The protesters, supporters of prominent Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, chanted that al-Nimr's blood had not been spilled in vain and that the Mahdi Army, Sadr's disbanded Shiite militia, would avenge his death if needed.

That points to the government's bigger fear: that the regional dispute over al-Nimr's execution will turn into new violence between Iraq's Shiites and Sunnis.

Sectarian violence has quickly spiraled out of control in Iraq in the recent past, and a renewed form could disrupt Baghdad's campaign against the Islamic State group, the Sunni extremists who control large parts of the north and west of the country.

Iranian-backed Shiite militias, whose might rivals that of the military and security forces, have been a major factor in the fight, and the government has already had to cede them considerable authority. At the same time, al-Abadi has sought to encourage reconciliation with the Sunni minority, among whom hatred of the militias is strong, and include Sunnis in the fight against IS.

"This is the last thing (al-Abadi) needs after the high point in Ramadi," said Kirk Sowell, publisher of the Inside Iraqi Politics newsletter, referring to the recent government victory pushing IS fighters out of the western Iraqi city.

While al-Nimr's execution is unlikely to change Iraq-Saudi policy in any meaningful way, it does have the potential to set off violence in Iraq, Sowell said.

Two Sunni mosques were attacked in the southern town of Hilla in apparent retaliation for the execution, but al-Abadi was quick to blame IS and order a buildup of security in the province.

A group of powerful Shiite militias with strong ties to Iran, including Asaib al-Haq and the Badr Brigade, demanded the government cut diplomatic ties with the kingdom, expel the ambassador and execute all Saudis held in Iraqi prisons on charges of terrorism.

Acceding to their demands risks disillusioning Sunnis, who already accuse the government of being too beholden to the militias and who often see neighbouring Sunni powerhouses like Jordan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia as allies.

"What you have right now is a split," said Sajad Jiyad, a fellow at the Iraqi Institute for Economic Reform in Baghdad, describing the opposing interests al-Abadi is struggling to satisfy. "The prime minister will find himself having to do something or face risking his popular appeal."

Al-Abadi may lack the ability to get ahead of a potential crisis, Jiyad said.

"It's unclear how much control the government has in Iraq," he said.



Advertisements

Latest Canada & World News

  • Strong Indonesia earthquake damages buildings, at least 3 injured

    World News CTV News
    JAKARTA, Indonesia -- A strong, shallow earthquake rocked Indonesia's central Sulawesi province Monday evening, injuring at least three people and damaging some buildings and houses, but producing no tsunami warning. The U.S. Geological Survey said the magnitude-6.8 quake was centred in a thinly populated area 79 kilometres (49 miles) southeast of the provincial capital, Palu, at a depth of 9.1 kilometres (6 miles). Source
  • Accused Portland stabber liked Nazis, comics and pot

    World News Toronto Sun
    Jeremy Joseph Christian was a man seething with rage. The 35-year-old Oregon man is accused of stabbing to death two good Samaritans who came to the rescue of two young women being harangued on a Portland commuter train. Source
  • Germany's Merkel says U.S. no longer a reliable partner for Europe

    World News CBC News
    German Chancellor Angela Merkel underlined her doubts about the reliability of the United States as an ally on Monday but said she was a "convinced trans-Atlanticist," fine-tuning her message after surprising Washington with her frankness a day earlier. Source
  • Ecuadorean president calls WikiLeaks founder a hacker

    World News CTV News
    QUITO, Ecuador -- Ecuadorean President Lenin Moreno is calling WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange a hacker. But Moreno added Monday that even though he considers Assange a hacker, Ecuador's government will allow the Australian to remain at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Source
  • Popular vote numbers reveal wider margin of victory for Andrew Scheer

    Canada News CBC News
    Andrew Scheer defeated Maxime Bernier by 62,593 to 55,544 votes, according to figures provided by a spokesperson of the Conservative Party. The numbers also reveal that more than 23,000 members included neither candidate on their preferential ballot. Source
  • Tim Hortons worker lends minivan to stranded strangers for relay race

    Canada News CTV News
    A Nova Scotia Tim Hortons drive-thru worker became the MVP of a stranded relay race team when she offered up her minivan to a group of complete strangers with no other way to get to the start line. Source
  • Ontario to raise minimum wage and update labour laws, premier says

    Canada News CTV News
    TORONTO -- The benefits of Ontario's renewed economic growth are not shared evenly across the province, Premier Kathleen Wynne said Monday as she planned to announce a raise to minimum wage as well as much anticipated changes to labour laws. Source
  • Sick, diabetic man says Greyhound bus driver left him stranded on highway

    Canada News CBC News
    A diabetic Manitoba man says he was left stranded at the side of a dark highway, hundreds of kilometres from home, by a Greyhound bus driver. Barry Spence, 41, travels from his home in Thompson, Man. Source
  • Calgary man charged in deaths of woman, young girl to stand trial

    Canada News CTV News
    CALGARY -- A provincial court judge has ordered a Calgary man to stand trial in the killing of a woman and her five-year-old daughter. Edward Downey is charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Sara Baillie and her daughter Taliyah Marsman last summer. Source
  • Trudeau asks Pope to apologize for residential schools [Video]

    Canada News Toronto Sun
    VATICAN CITY — Canadians are anxious to reconcile with Indigenous Peoples, Justin Trudeau described telling Pope Francis on Monday as he asked the pontiff to apologize for the role the Catholic Church played in the tragedy of residential schools. Source