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Paul Iddon

Mr Sadr goes to Saudi Arabia

Muqtada al-Sadr with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman [Getty]

Date of publication: 16 August, 2017

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Analysis: Sadr may yet be able to use his clout to build bridges with Sunni communities, while urging Riyadh to end its crackdown on Saudi Shia communities, writes Paul Iddon.
Muqtada al-Sadr, the infamous Iraqi Shia cleric, has made a cordial visit to Saudi Arabia for the first time in 11 years. He may yet prove to be a figure capable of strengthening ties between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, which have been weak for the past quarter-century.

Saudi Arabia was slow to accept the new order in Iraq following the US-led invasion and overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime. Saddam's ousting ended the old order in Iraq, in which powerful elements within the country's Sunni Arab-minority essentially ruled with an iron fist over an oppressed Shia Arab-majority and the Kurdish minority.

For the first time since 1171, the Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt, an Arab country was governed by the Shia. Iraq is the only Shia Arab-majority country in the world alongside the island kingdom of Bahrain.

Riyadh did not rush to welcome this new order. Diplomatic relations have only been fully restored in the past year, 14 years after the regime change of 2003. Saudi Arabia, along with many of the other Gulf monarchies, fear Iranian influence in Iraq. Iran, also a Shia-majority country, is ruled by a theocracy which, unlike leading Iraqi clerics like Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, insists that the clergy should rule over the affairs of state.

Had Iran invaded Iraq in 2003 instead of the United States, and retained military forces there after overthrowing the regime, Sadr would likely have fought them too

Enter Muqtada al-Sadr: long the bane of the American occupation in Iraq, Sadr was perhaps the figure the Americans least understood - dismissing him out of hand as an Iranian pawn while simultaneously cooperating with the Badr Organisation, which has deep long-standing ties with Tehran going back decades.

Sadr, for his many faults, is demonstrably an Iraqi nationalist in ways other Shia power-brokers in Iraq simply are not. Had Iran invaded Iraq in 2003 instead of the United States, and retained military forces there after overthrowing the regime, Sadr would likely have fought them too.

This year he has been promulgating his Initial Solutions to post-IS Iraq. Interestingly, they include disbanding the Shia-majority Hashd al-Shaabi Popular Mobilisation Force, a coalition consisting mostly, although not exclusively, of Shia militias formed in 2014 to combat the Islamic State group threat to the country.

On this and many other issues, Sadr and the Saudis, despite their differences, see eye-to-eye. Riyadh may have been slow to accept the fact that Iraq is a Shia-majority nation and, post-2003, the Shia - while far from a monolith, will have a major say. However, today it would much rather see an independent Iraq governed by Iraqi Shia rather than one in which Iran has too much say.

On this subject Sadr and the Saudis are on the same page.

One area where close ties between Sadr and the Saudis could de-escalate tensions concerns the status of minorities in both countries

Riyadh gave $10 million to Sadr during his visit to open a consulate in Najaf, forging closer relations between Riyadh and the Sadr Movement. Sadr has reportedly called on his followers to remove anti-Saudi signs in the Shia holy city. Cordial ties between Riyadh and Najaf could provide a means to work together on a variety of issues that concern both.

One area where close ties between Sadr and the Saudis could de-escalate tensions concerns the status of minorities in both countries. Many Sunni Arabs in Iraq felt disenfranchised after 2003. Under the premiership of Nouri al-Maliki their protest movements were forcibly suppressed in 2012 and 2013. Sadr, a political rival of Maliki, said the Sunnis had a right to voice their grievances, and even said he would travel to the Sunni-majority Anbar province to show his support, provided they remained peaceful.

He was likely motivated by the understanding that an Iraq in which Sunnis feel excluded would produce chronic division and instability.

Sadr could still use his clout and influence to build bridges with Sunni communities given his recent record to help re-integrate them into Iraqi society as the country sets about the arduous task of rebuilding cities destroyed by the war against IS.

In turn, Sadr could urge Riyadh to de-escalate its crackdown on the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia's eastern governorate of Qatif. He could even help mediate between Riyadh and moderate elements in that community to prevent the often bloody flare-ups in violence there.

While it may be along time before anything like this could happen, it's certainly possible - and Sadr's visit may be the first step. After all, while infamous for a lot of things, nobody can really say the Middle East has ever been predictable.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon

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