Iraq offers to mediate between Saudis and Iran, worried over fall-out

Jan 06 2016

BAGHDAD, Jan 6 ( Reuters ) - Iraq offered to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran to end their dispute triggered by Riyadh's execution of a prominent Shi'ite cleric, saying on Wednesday it could spill over into the rest of the region.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, speaking in Tehran with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif, said the row could have "wide-ranging repercussions".

Analysts said Baghdad was particularly worried about anything that could disrupt its campaign against Islamic State militants.

"We have solid relations with the Islamic Republic (Iran) ... and also we have relations with our Arab brothers and therefore we cannot stay silent in this crisis," Jaafari told the join press conference.

Sunni Muslim power Saudi Arabia executed Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on Saturday, prompting protesters to raid Saudi Arabia's embassy in Iran.

Riyadh then cut off diplomatic relations with Iran, its main regional rival and the biggest Shi'ite power - an action followed by Bahrain and Sudan while the United Arab Emirates downgraded its representation in Tehran.

There was no immediate reaction from Saudi Arabia to the Iraqi mediation offer.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who leads his divided country with a Shi'ite-dominated govenrment, has expressed "intense shock" at the execution of Nimr, condemning it as human rights violation.

But analysts say he has resisted pressure from Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias, politicians and protesters to close the newly reopened Saudi embassy in Baghdad.

The Iraqi government was trying to walk a middle line between Iran and the Arab countries in order to keep the momentum on the campaign against Islamic State, said Mona Alami, a Beirut-based analyst at the Atlantic Center think-tank.

"Abadi needs all the allies he can get," she said by phone.

Abadi has declared 2016 the year of "final victory" against Islamic State, the ultra-hardline Sunni militant group that proclaimed a caliphate in 2014 over large sections of Sunni-populated territory in Iraq and Syria.

"Abadi is caught between two fires: the Sunni hardliners and the Shi'ite hardliners," said Mustafa Alani, the United Arab Emirates-based director of security and defence studies at the Gulf Research Center, a Geneva-based think tank.

Iran's foreign minister Zarif accused Saudi Arabia of rebuffing Iran's offers to cooperate on "terrorism and extremism," while Iranian President Hassan Rouhani accused Riyadh of fuelling regional tensions.

"Saudi Arabia is trying to cover up its defeats and domestic problems by creating tension in the region," Rouhani said in a speech broadcast on Iranian state television on Wednesday.

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