The Iraqi foreign ministry summoned the new Saudi ambassador to Baghdad, Thamer al-Sabhan, after he suggested that a coalition of Iran-backed Shi’ite militias was exacerbating sectarian tensions and should leave the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) to the Iraqi security forces.
In a statement, the foreign ministry said it summoned Sabhan “to inform him of its official protest regarding his media statements that represented interference in Iraqi internal affairs,” reports Agence France-Presse (AFP).
The ministry was referring to the remarks the Saudi envoy made about the coalition of Shi’ite militias known as the Hashid Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces), which is considered a bulwark against the Sunni ISIS group.
Sabhan criticized the Iran-backed militia group in an interview with Iraq’s al-Sumaria TV on Saturday.
“The refusal by the Kurds and [Iraq’s Sunni province of] Anbar to let the Hashid Shaabi come to their regions shows that the Hashid is not accepted by Iraqi society,” declared the Saudi envoy.
Sabhan is the first Baghdad-based Saudi ambassador based in a quarter century — since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
“Baghdad’s move underscores the depth of enmity between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslim powers as sectarian conflicts rage in Syria, Yemen and Iraq,” reports Reuters.
“While full diplomatic relations are restored, there is still significant hostility to Riyadh in some quarters and there have already been calls for the envoy’s expulsion,” adds AFP.
The Iraqi foreign ministry defended the Hashid Shaabi.
“This constitutes… a breach of diplomatic protocol and is based on inaccurate information,” the ministry noted in its statement, referring to the Saudi envoy’s criticism of the militia.
“The Hashid Shaabi are fighting terrorism and defending the country’s sovereignty and acting under the umbrella and command of the commander-in-chief of the armed forces,” added the statement.
In a separate statement, the ministry reportedly said the foreign ministers of both Iraq and Saudi Arabia had met on Sunday on the sidelines of a conference in Bahrain and denounced the envoy’s comments.
“The Saudi foreign minister said these statements do not reflect the official position of the kingdom towards brotherly Iraq,” the statement reportedly said.
While Iraq’s largest Sunni bloc defended the Saudi ambassador, Shi’ite members of parliament had earlier responded angrily to his comments, with some of them calling for him to be kicked out of Iraq.
“The remarks of the Saudi ambassador indicate clear hostility and blatant interference in Iraqi affairs,” reportedly said Khalaf Abdulsamad, the head of the Shi’ite Dawa parliamentary list, in a statement.
“His talking about the Hashed al-Shaabi in this way is considered a major insult,” added Abdulsamad, urging the foreign ministry to “preserve the dignity of the Iraqi state and summon the Saudi ambassador and expel him from Iraq.”
Alia Nasayif, another Shi’ite lawmaker from the MP State of Law bloc, said the Saudi envoy’s criticism “included clear attempts to provoke sectarian strife.”
Ahmed al-Assadi, a spokesman for And Hashid Shaabi, accused Saudi Arabia of being a sponsor of terrorism.
He referred to Sabhan as an “ambassador of a state that supports terrorism” and called for Iraq to “expel this ambassador and punish him for his statements.”
Meanwhile, the Alliance of Iraqi Forces, the primary Sunni Arab bloc in parliament, described Sabhan’s remarks as “very natural” and criticized the “political campaign” against him.
Iraq’s Shi’ite majority views Saudi Arabia as a supporter of extremists and opponents of their community, notes Reuters.
Sabhan’s tenure in Iraq recently began when he presented his credential almost a week ago. His presence in Iraq was “off to a rocky start even before his recent remarks, notes AFP.
Saudi Arabia’s execution of prominent Shi’ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr at the beginning of the month ignited widespread anger against Riyadh in addition to protests and calls for Saudi envoy to be expelled from Iraq.