Moqtada Al Sadr meets Iraqi Sunni cleric in the UAE

His symbolic meeting with Sheikh Ahmed Al Kubaisi came a day after he was hosted by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.

Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr meets with Sheikh Ahmed Al Kubaisi in Abu Dhabi (credit Moqtada Al Sadr’s office)
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Two of Iraq’s most prominent clerics, one Sunni one Shiite, met in the UAE on Monday to improve Iraqi unity and relations with Arab Gulf states.

Moqtada Al Sadr, the populist Shiite cleric and politician, was in the Emirates in the latest of a series of high-level meetings between Iraqi officials and GCC leaders.

His symbolic meeting with Sheikh Ahmed Al Kubaisi came a day after he was hosted by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.

At his UAE residence, Sheikh Al Kubaisi discussed with Mr Al Sadr the situation in Iraq as well as regional developments, Mr Al Sadr’s office said.

The two men stressed the importance of Islamic and Arab unity, asserting that combating violence, hate and extremism is the only means of sustaining security, peace and prosperity among Muslims in the Arab region.

Sheikh Al Kubaisi praised the national and humanitarian position that Mr Al Sadr has recently taken towards sustaining security in Iraq.

The UAE flew Mr Al Sadr in for talks with Sheikh Mohammed late on Sunday at Al Shati palace in the capital.

"Experience has taught us to always call for what brings Arabs and Muslims together, and to reject the advocates of division," Sheikh Mohammed said after the talks.


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He said the UAE, throughout its history, had extended its hand to the Iraqi people while expressing his appreciation for the contributions of the Iraqi community to the nation.

Sheikh Mohammed also congratulated Mr Al Sadr on the recent victories over ISIL and emphasised the importance of a “stable and prosperous Iraq”.

Mr Al Sadr’s visit to the UAE followed a trip to Saudi Arabia and a number of other meetings between Iraqi and Saudi officials, in recent weeks. Riyadh and Baghdad only restored diplomatic relations in 2015 after 25 years, and the improved relations has surprised many given the scale of Iranian influence in the country.

Mohamed Hineidi, a senior analyst at the Delma Institute, said Mr Al Sadr’s visit to Jeddah and meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “was unprecedented for the firebrand cleric, and for the Gulf”.

“Influential Shia individuals in Iraq’s halls of power have traditionally been anti-Saudi, and most still are, Mr Al Sadr however seems to be seeking regional support ahead of the April 2018 Iraqi elections,” Mr Hineidi said.

Despite Mr Al Sadr’s move for better ties with the Gulf, and other regional states, “he does not want Iraq to be completely aligned to any regional camp”.

The Shiite cleric has transformed from militia leader fighting US forces after the 2003 invasion to the leader of a popular political movement, leading vast protests against government.

Mr Al Sadr is one of few Iraqi Shiite clerics to keep some distance from Iran. In April, he became the first Shiite leader to call Bashar Al Assad to step down – a marked difference in policy to Iran and the militias it backs towards the Syrian government.

Although “Iran’s power in Iraq is irreplaceable, and irreversible at this stage, Mr Al Sadr wants to limit all foreign influence in Iraq, not just Iranian influence” Mr Hineidi added.

Even if he is to succeed in next year’s election, Mr Al Sadr “will ensure that even the Gulf influence does not reach a point in Iraq where Baghdad is reliant on the GCC - much like it is now on Iran” added Mr Hineidi.

The Shiite leader instead wants to “send a message to Iran to show he is not playing along Iranian interests in Iraq” said Adnan Tabatabai, CEO of German-based think tank CARPO.

Mr Al Sadr seeks “to show that he is an independent actor in Iraqi power politics, both in internal and external affairs. His aim is not necessarily being anti-Dawa, anti-Iran or anti-anyone” added Mr Tabtabai.

“Instead, Mr Al Sadr wants to show all sides he does not belong to them. He has tremendous mobilising power in Iraq which he knows makes him invaluable as a power broker in Iraqi politics” said Mr Tabatabai.

The UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Dr Anwar Gargash said on Monday that “Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed’s welcoming of Moqtada Al Sadr is part of the Gulf communication with Iraq”.

“Our ambition is to see an Arab, stable and prosperous Iraq, it will be challenging but will be rewarding,” Dr Gargash said.

He said the recent meetings with Iraqi officials by Saudi, Emirati and Bahraini leaders are an example of the influence of the Gulf states “once the vision and objectives are united”.

Sheikh Al Kubaisi was exiled from Iraq in 1998 and returned after the US invasion in 2003. Despite the timing of his return, he called for a Shiite-Sunni alliance against the US presence in the country.