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

  • 'Fish stinks from head down': Scaramucci accuses Priebus of being leaker [Video]

    World News Toronto Sun
    WASHINGTON — New White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci went after chief of staff Reince Priebus Thursday as a suspected “leaker” within the West Wing in a pull-no-punches interview that laid bare the personality clashes and internal turmoil of Donald Trump’s presidency. Source
  • Surveillance plane crews strained after three years flying over Iraq, Syria

    Canada News CTV News
    OTTAWA -- The Canadian military is hoping the recent withdrawal of one of its Aurora surveillance planes from the fight against the Islamic State will help ease what had become a serious strain on the fleet's aircrews. Source
  • Canada approves White House and congressional leaders scrapping border tax

    Canada News Toronto Sun
    WASHINGTON — Trump administration officials and congressional leaders are no longer considering an import-based tax system to rewrite the tax code, which was welcomed by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland. A border tax system had been contemplated to lower rates without blowing a hole in the American budget. Source
  • Boy Scouts leader apologizes for Trump's 'political rhetoric' in jamboree speech

    World News CBC News
    The Boy Scouts' chief executive apologized Thursday to members of the scouting community who were offended by the aggressive political rhetoric in President Donald Trump's recent speech to the Scouts' national jamboree. The apology came in a statement from chief scout executive Michael Surbaugh, three days after Trump's speech to nearly 40,000 scouts and adults gathered in West Virginia. Source
  • Nova Scotia thieves steal Bluenose captain's historic weather vane

    Canada News CTV News
    LUNENBURG, N.S. - The RCMP are seeking the public's help in the theft of an historic object once owned by Nova Scotia's most famous sea captain -- Capt. Angus Walters, skipper of the schooner Bluenose. Source
  • Police body cam records Florida cop wrestling with gator

    World News CTV News
    Incredible footage captured on a Florida police officer’s body camera shows the officer face off with one of the state’s deadliest creatures. Alfred Vargas of the Boynton Beach Police Department, a community about 90 kilometres north of Miami, was called to a local home when a resident complained about an alligator lingering outside their front door. Source
  • Boy Scout leader apologizes for Donald Trump's speech at national jamboree [Video]

    World News Toronto Sun
    NEW YORK — The Boy Scouts’ chief executive apologized Thursday to members of the scouting community who were offended by the aggressive political rhetoric in President Donald Trump’s recent speech to the Scouts’ national jamboree. The apology came in a statement from Chief Scout Executive Michael Surbaugh, three days after Trump’s speech to nearly 40,000 scouts and adults gathered in West Virginia. Source
  • U.K. judge OKs plan for ill baby Charlie to go to a hospice

    Canada News CTV News
    LONDON -- A British judge ordered Thursday that critically ill baby Charlie Gard should be moved from a hospital to a hospice, where he will "inevitably" die within a short time. As the medical and legal story that has sparked compassion and controversy around the world entered its final stage, the baby's dismayed mother accused courts and a hospital of denying Charlie's parents "our final wish" -- to let their son die at home. Source
  • 96-year-old war vet is granted wish to revisit U.S. Navy station [Photos]

    World News Toronto Sun
    NEWPORT, R.I. — A 96-year-old World War II veteran who dreamed of returning to a Navy installation to reminisce about his more than 20-year naval career got his wish on Thursday. Edmund DelBarone toured Naval Station Newport in a visit arranged by Denver-based non-profit Wish of a Lifetime. Source
  • First Nations chiefs divided on national public inquiry: Bellegarde

    Canada News CTV News
    OTTAWA -- First Nations leaders are divided on what to do about the troubled inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde says. Some want a reset of the commission while others want resignations from the four commissioners, Bellegarde said Thursday in an interview with The Canadian Press prior to a vote on resolutions at a Regina meeting of chiefs. Source