ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Iraqi sovereignty must be respected and weapons kept in the hands of the government, a top Shia cleric in Iraq told Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, indirectly referring to the growing influence of Shia-dominated militias Tehran backs in the country.
Wednesday’s meeting was the first time Iraq’s 88-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani met with an Iranian president.
Sistani rarely interferes in Iraqi politics but continues to have considerable impact over the public opinion in the country.
Sistani welcomed “any steps to strengthen Iraq’s relations with its neighbors…based on respect for the sovereignty of the countries and no interference in domestic affairs,” a statement his office issued read.
“The most important challenges facing Iraq are fighting corruption, improving services, and keeping weapons in the hands of the state and its security services,” it added.
The meeting comes on the third day of Rouhani’s visit to Iraq. The Iranian leader came to Iraqi to show Iran’s political and economic dominance over the neighboring state and to develop commercial ties to minimize the implications of the renewed US sanctions over Tehran.
Iran and Iraq both have a Shia Muslim majority population. On Monday, the two governments signed several trade agreements, according to Iraqi officials, which include accords on oil, health, and transportation linking the Iraqi oil-rich city of Basra to an Iranian border town.
Sistani’s comment may concern the powerful Shia militias within the Hashd al-Shaabi, also known as Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). The militias continue to have significant military and political influence in Iraq after the defeat of the Islamic State.
Al-Fatih Coalition, led by the PMF’s senior leader, Hadi al-Amri, finished second in Iraq’s 2018 parliamentary election, winning 48 seats of Iraq’s 329-seat parliament.
The PMF was established after Sistani’s call to Iraqi volunteers to take up arms and fight against the Islamic State in late 2014. The militia group, which played an important role in defeating the extremist group, was formally integrated into the security forces last year.
Editing by Karzan Sulaivany