An influential pro-Iran Iraqi official met Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in Damascus on Monday to discuss a regional summit Baghdad plans to host this month, Syrian state media outlet Sana reported.
Falih Al Fayyadh, the chairman of the Iraqi government-sanctioned Popular Mobilisation Forces, conveyed a message from Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi about the summit and the necessity of Iraqi-Syrian co-operation about the summit and its agenda, Sana said.
Mr Al Fayyadh invited Mr Al Assad to attend the summit, despite objections by some of the other countries whose presence has been requested, Iraqi media reported.
In a sign of a rift between the pro-Iran camp and the Iraqi government, Iraq's Foreign Affairs Ministry immediately issued a statement denying any such invitation had been sent by the government, suggesting that Mr Al Fayyadh was acting alone.
“The Iraqi government underlines that it has nothing to do with this invitation,” the ministry said. “The official invitations are sent in the form of an official letter and are signed by the prime minister. No other party has the right to submit the invitation in the name of the Iraqi government.”
There has been no statement Mr Al Fayyadh's office.
The PMF is an umbrella group established in 2014 to fight ISIS and is made up of Shiite and Sunni militias, along with others linked to different ethnic and religious groups. Iran-backed Shiite militias are the core of the PMF.
Iran-allied factions have been at odds with Mr Al Kadhimi, who pledged to rein in militias when he took office in May 2020. Mr Al Kadhimi is seen by the pro-Iran officials and militias as being too close to the US.
It is still unclear if the government will officially invite Mr Al Assad to attend. While no exact date has been announced for the summit, letters of invitation have been sent to leaders in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, the UAE and Qatar.
Iraq announced last week that French President Emmanuel Macron will attend the conference.
After 2003, when the US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led regime and brought the nation’s Shiite majority to power, most Sunni Arab nations have shunned Iraq. That paved the way for Iran to strengthen its ties.
To counter the growing Iranian influence in Iraq, the US encouraged the Iraqi government in recent years to re-establish its ties with its neighbours. As a result, embassies were reopened and commercial ties restored.
Over the past months, Iraq has been playing the role of mediator between Arab countries and Iran. It hosted a series of meetings between Iran and Saudi Arabia to help the rivals to restore relations that were severed in 2016.
Iraq says rebuilding ties between the two regional heavyweights will help to reduce tension in the country.
Since the onset of the turmoil in Syria in 2011, Iraq has positioned itself as a firm supporter of Mr Al Assad’s regime, unlike other Arab countries that cut ties with Syria.
Iran-backed Shiite militias are also fighting alongside Syrian regime forces.