Saudi envoy’s militia remarks spark Iraqi Shia anger

BAGHDAD: Iraqi Shia lawmakers responded angrily on Saturday to the Saudi Arabian ambassador’s criticism of militia forces in the country, with some calling for his expulsion less than a month after he arrived.

Thamer al-Sabhan is the first Baghdad-based Saudi ambassador in a quarter century, but while full diplomatic relations are restored, many Iraqi Shias view Riyadh as a supporter of jihadist groups and an enemy of their community.

Sabhan said in interview with Al-Sumaria television that the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary forces, which are dominated by Iran-backed Shia militias, are not wanted in Sunni Arab and Kurdish areas as “they are not accepted by the sons of Iraqi society”.

Iraq turned to Shia militia forces in 2014 to help counter the Islamic State jihadist group’s onslaught, which had overrun large areas north and west of Baghdad. While they have been a key part of the anti-Islamic State fight and are widely supported by Iraqi Shias, many members of the Sunni Arab and Kurdish minorities view at least some of the Hashed al-Shaabi’s main forces as hostile.

“The remarks of the Saudi ambassador indicate clear hostility and blatant interference in Iraqi affairs (and) his talking about the Hashed al-Shaabi in this way is considered a major insult,” Khalaf Abdulsamad, the head of the Dawa parliamentary list, said in a statement.

The foreign ministry should “preserve the dignity of the Iraqi state and summon the Saudi ambassador and expel him from Iraq,” he said. Alia Nasayif, an MP from the “State of Law” bloc, said the ambassador’s remarks “included clear attempts to provoke sectarian strife”.

And Hashed al-Shaabi spokesman Ahmed al-Assadi termed Sabhan an “ambassador of a state that supports terrorism” and called for Iraq to “expel this ambassador and punish him for his statements.” But Sabhan’s comments were not universally panned, with the Alliance of Iraqi Forces, the main Sunni Arab bloc in parliament, describing his remarks as “very natural” and criticizing the “political campaign” against him.

Sabhan’s tenure in Iraq, which officially began when he presented his credentials 10 days ago, was off to a rocky start even before his recent remarks.

Saudi Arabia’s execution of activist and Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr at the beginning of the month sparked widespread anti-Riyadh anger, protests and calls for Sabhan to be kicked out of Iraq.

Iraq has been plagued by years of tensions between its Shia majority and Sunni minority, which ruled the country under Saddam Hussein, with thousands killed in sectarian violence.

The United Nations said last week that more 18,000 Iraqi civilians had been killed in the previous two years, many due to an upsurge in violence with the rise of ISIS.

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