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Caught between Washington, Riyadh and Tehran, will Sadr put Iraq first?

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (R) meets with Leader of the Sadrist movement Muqtada Al-Sadr (L) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on 30 July 2017 [Bandar Algaloud/Anadolu Agency]

A self-confident Moqtada Al-Sadr, head of Iraq's Sadrist bloc, arrived in Saudi Arabia on Sunday where he received a warm diplomatic reception few expected.

Al-Sadr's last appearance in Saudi, as cited by local news agencies, was in 2006 during an official visit to the Red Sea port city of Jeddah.

Reactions, for now at least, have been mixed and sardonic, as Al-Sadr shelves his criticism of the Kingdom in favour of burying the hatchet. Motives behind the reunion however are in serious question, as is the sincerity of the visit.

Though Iraqi-Saudi relations have progressed since 2015 when Saudi reopened its embassy in Baghdad almost a quarter-century after its closure, the strained alliance has been far from cordial.

A coordination council was also set up last month, to make amends of the two nations' troubled past.

Yet approximately nine months ago, Thamer Al-Sabhan, the Saudi official who greeted Al-Sadr with a kiss, was stripped of his title as ambassador to Iraq over disparaging remarks against Iraq's state-sponsored umbrella organisation – the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).

If the intended aim is to mend strategic ties as Al-Sadr's office has announced, why did Riyadh not beckon Iraq's Prime Minister, Haidar Al-Abadi.

Read: Iraqi Shia cleric calls for demonstrations against Maliki's return

Riyadh's tacital endorsement of religious political figures, vetted by its key western ally, the United States is also in doubt. Of less concern is the fact that Al-Sadr's religious affiliations counter those of Saudi Arabia, but rather that Al-Sadr has been a longstanding servant of Saudi's regional foe: Iran.

Presiding over one of the largest electoral bases in Iraq, America believes Al-Sadr is the candidate most capable of impeding the ambitions of Dawa party leader and ex-prime minister, Nouri Al-Maliki.

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki [File photo]

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki [File photo]

Having shown the ability to speedily mobilise his constituency in the run-up to previous elections, Al-Sadr is the counterweight American President Donald Trump needs to oust Al-Maliki's party from the political running.

This balancing act has been developed to quash the challenge Iraq's PMF forces pose to the Trump administration. Although militias Al-Sadr co-founded in 2003 took-up arms against US occupiers, Al-Sadr himself was happier to appease the US presence by accepting the political process they installed.

In spite of Al-Sadr's electoral might, he is not a figure known for putting "diplomacy first". Upon surveying his history of recklessly violent activities, death squads and incoherent remarks, it is difficult to see how Sadr can be the conciliatory figure that can reverse the problems he helped to create.

Despite remarks he made in support of the disbanding of Iraq's PMF units, his newest militia, Sarayat Al-Salam – formed to combat Daesh in 2014 – remains active.

The other argument floated within analytical and policy circles is that Al-Sadr is Iraq's best chance of resisting Iran. The problem with this argument is that it assumes Al-Sadr not to be the reactionary firebrand cleric the public has come to know, but a moderate nationalist prepared to defy Iran.

Read:Who to trust in Iraq? Sunnis or Shias

Al-Sadr's visit is not a measure of the relations between the two countries, but more an indication of America's response to Iran's increasing encroachment over Iraq.

We may instead read Al-Sadr's trip as a joint effort by Riyadh and Washington to promote established Iraqi faces that will thwart the plans of Iran's long standing patron – the Dawa party.

The likely response will see Al-Sadr summoned to Tehran, where he will be expected to disclose the details of Sunday's meeting with the Saudi crown prince.

On the surface, Al-Sadr has renewed his commitment to diplomacy, but is this simply a political charade or is he prepared to put Iraq first?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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