Middle East

Saudi-Iran tensions sharpen Iraq's sectarian divide

Protesters in Baghdad burn effigy of Saudi Arabian King Salman (04/01/16) Image copyright AP
Image caption Saudi Arabia's execution of Nimr al-Nimr triggered outrage on the streets of Baghdad

Within hours of Saudi Arabia's execution of prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, the highest Shia authority in Iraq spoke out against what he called the shedding of "pure blood".

"He is a martyr. May his soul rest in peace," Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said, indicative of the esteem in which the late sheikh was held in Iraq.

For many Shia there, Sheikh Nimr was an icon for his vocal support for anti-government protests by fellow Shia in Sunni Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province.

No wonder they took to the streets of Baghdad in their thousands after Sheikh Nimr, along with 46 other people, was executed on 2 January, all convicted of terrorism.

With the devastating civil war in Iraq between Sunnis and Shia in 2006-2007 still fresh in people's minds, his execution threatens to inflame Iraq's sectarian tensions.

Two Sunni mosques have been attacked and two people killed in apparent retaliation for Sheikh Nimr's death.

Ideological battle

Leading Shia political and military figures in Iraq openly bear animosity towards Saudi Arabia.

They are particularly critical of Riyadh's ultra-conservative form of Islam, which they perceive as the nucleus of the extremist ideology of al-Qaeda and its splinter groups, like the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS).

"This is an ideological battle with Sunni extremists that must be fought to the end," Jaafar al-Husseini, spokesman for the Shia Hezbollah Brigades militia, told me.

The Iranian-backed group is one of several militias that constitute the backbone of nearly 120,000 volunteers, mainly Shia and known as the Popular Mobilisation (PM) forces.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Nimr al-Nimr had a strong following among Iraq's Shia militia

Able-bodied Shia men took up arms against IS in response to a fatwa (edict) by Sheikh Sistani in June 2014 as large parts of the Iraqi army collapsed in the face of the IS advance.

The massive force of Shia volunteers has become the most successful example of boots-on-the-ground in Iraq.

And despite accusations by international human rights groups of human rights abuses against Sunnis, the Popular Mobilisation forces remain hugely popular in Shia-majority areas.

"We should not have any relations with Saudi Arabia," Mr Husseini said in a decisive tone.

Cautious path

The growing Saudi-Iranian crisis has put Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi between a rock and a hard place.

He is a strategic ally of Tehran and trade volume between both countries reached a staggering $18bn (£12 billion) last year.

But the prime minister, who quickly condemned Sheikh Nimr's execution, is also keen on cementing ties with Riyadh and navigating a middle ground between both neighbours.

"Mr Abadi is extremely cautious in this crisis," says Hussein Allawi, professor of National Security at al-Nahrain University in Baghdad.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Haider al-Abadi needs the support of Iraq's Sunni population if he is to vanquish IS

"He wanted to appear as a neutral negotiator when he sent his foreign minister to Tehran where he offered to mediate.

"Iraq needs all neighbouring countries to support it in its war against Daesh (Islamic State) and will not turn into another battleground of a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

"He needs to not alienate the Sunnis and to be fully committed to reinvigorating the Sunni Awakening Councils."

In 2007, the US created militias of Sunni tribal volunteers, known as Awakening Councils, to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq's Anbar province and elsewhere.

They provided them with arms and salaries to be on the side of the Shia-led government of Nouri al-Maliki, rather than al-Qaeda.

Ghassan al-Ithawi, spokesman for anti-IS tribal fighters in Anbar, believes Mr Abadi's approach in tackling the Saudi-Iranian crisis will attract broad support among Sunnis.

"We need the Saudis in the reconstruction process of Anbar when we win the war against Daesh," he said. "Sectarianism plays well into the hands of IS."

Related Topics

More on this story