Iraq must walk fine line amid tensions in Mideast

Susannah George
Associated Press

Baghdad – — While many Iraqi Shiites took to the streets in outrage over Saudi Arabia’s execution of a prominent Shiite cleric, the country’s prime minister has had to walk a more cautious line, trying to contain Iraq’s own explosive sectarian tensions.

The execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr has inflamed the sectarian divide across the region. Shiite-led Iran has been the most vocal in its condemnation, and protesters stormed Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran over the weekend. That prompted Sunni-led Saudi Arabia to cut diplomatic relations with Iran, and the kingdom’s allies have lined up behind it, either cutting or reducing their ties with Tehran.

The government of Iraq, however, is straining to keep the peace amid the regional tumult. Iran, a key ally of the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, has helped it in the fight against the Islamic State group, and supports powerful Shiite militias in the country.

At the same time, as the fight against IS extremists enters its second year, Iraq is grappling with the worst political and security crises since the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011.

In Washington, Brett McGurk, special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spent most of Monday on the phone trying to ease tensions in the region.

“We are encouraging a de-escalation, because any time you have regional polarization, regional escalation, it obviously can cause difficulties and it opens up seams for extremists on all sides to take advantage of the situation,” McGurk told reporters Tuesday.

In a sign of the Iraqi government’s caution, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi issued a statement expressing regret over al-Nimr’s execution and warning such actions would “bring more destruction and devastation.”

His office followed that Tuesday with a call for unity among Iraqis. Regional tensions should be faced “wisely, responsibly and rationally in order to preserve the security and stability of Iraq,” according to al-Abadi’s office.

A day earlier, thousands of Shiites gathered a few hundred yards from his office and called for the government to sever diplomatic ties with Riyadh. The protesters, supporters of prominent Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, chanted that al-Nimr’s blood had not been spilled in vain and that the Mahdi Army, Sadr’s disbanded Shiite militia, would avenge his death if needed.

That points to the government’s bigger fear: That the regional dispute over al-Nimr’s execution will turn into new violence between Iraq’s Shiites and Sunnis.