A senior Iraqi Shiite leader has rejected reports that he plans to visit Saudi Arabia, telling Iranian journalists that he will only visit the Kingdom if Saudi troops leave Bahrain and Yemen. “Saudi Arabia recently sent a message to me through a mediator asking if I would go to meet this country’s leaders if they invite me. I responded by saying that if their gift to me is leaving Bahrain and ending the killing of Yemen’s innocent people, I will certainly accept. Of course, this request was rejected by them. Therefore, I have no intention at present to travel to Saudi Arabia,” said Ammar al-Hakim, the former head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (I.S.C.I) who recently established a new political party called the National Wisdom Movement. Hakim made the comments in an interview in Iraq with an Iranian media delegation led by Alireza Ma’azi, the head of the Iranian government’s higher council of media. Saudi media outlets had reported that following prominent Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s visit to Saudi Arabia, Riyadh had invited other Iraqi Shiite leaders, including Hakim. But according to Fars News Agency, an Iranian outlet affiliated with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.)., one leader of the National Wisdom Movement rejected the reports.
Comment: The recent visit by the leader of Iraq’s al-Sadr movement to Saudi Arabia stirred a great deal of concern in Iran. Iranian media outlets and analysts cautioned that by inviting Sadr – and potentially other Iraqi Shiite leaders in the future – Riyadh is attempting to cultivate closer ties with Baghdad to undercut Iranian influence in the Arab country. “Is the headline-making Iraqi cleric leaning toward Saudi Arabia?” asked Fararu, an outlet affiliated with conservative politician and mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf.
Hakim has close ties with Tehran. And rumors in the Iranian and Arab media that he might also visit the Kingdom soon may have worried Iranian leaders. During his recent visit to the Iranian capital, Hakim agreed with Tehran that U.S. troops should leave Iraq after the fight against the Islamic State is over. Fars News Agency quoted the Iraqi leader as saying that the government will also not allow any foreign military base to remain in the country.
Hakim’s trip to Tehran and his subsequent move to establish a new political party came at a critical time. As the fight against the Islamic State in Mosul and across Iraq has entered its final stage, internal political fissures and disputes in Iraq are escalating again – particularly between the Baghdad government and the semiautonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, which plans to hold an independence referendum next month.
But most importantly, with the Islamic State no longer posing a significant threat to Baghdad and Iran’s interests in Iraq, Tehran is also seeking to use its leverage with Shiite Iraqi political and military leaders to ensure that is rivals – particularly the United States and Saudi Arabia – do not have any significant influence in post-Islamic State Iraq.
In recent months, top commanders of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces – an alliance of predominantly Shiite militia groups backed by Iran – have also become increasingly vocal in their criticism of the U.S. military. Several P.M.F. commanders have called on the Baghdad government to limit the role of the U.S. military in Mosul operations and not to allow U.S. troops to stay in Iraq after the Islamic State is evicted from northwestern Iraq.
When Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi visited Tehran two weeks ago, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei told him that he opposed the presence of American forces in Iraq and urged the Iraqi leader not to rely on Washington. “Do not trust the Americans under any circumstances because they are waiting for an opportunity to do harm,” Khamenei said.