Zarif visits Baghdad on eve of Iraqi PM's trip to Saudi Arabia and Iran

Mustafa Al Kadhimi is also expected to travel to Washington to pursue a strategic dialogue with the US in the coming weeks

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif arrived in Baghdad on Sunday as Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi prepared for trips to Saudi Arabia and Iran aimed at building "balanced" relations with the regional rivals.

Mr Zarif first visited the site outside Baghdad airport where top Iranian general Qassem Suleimani was killed in a drone strike in January, before meeting Mr Al Kadhimi. The strike threatened to turn escalating US-Iran tensions into open conflict in Iraq.

“Iraq seeks to assert its balanced and positive role in making peace and progress in the region,” Mr Al Kadhimi's office tweeted during his meeting with Mr Zarif.

Mr Zarif later held talks with Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein and was also scheduled to meet President Barham Salih, parliament Speaker Mohammed Al Halbousi, and the leader of Iraq's largely Iran-aligned Hashed Al Shaabi paramilitaries, Faleh Al Fayadh, before visiting Erbil, capital of the Iraqi Kurdistan region.

“We stressed that we want balanced relations with all neighbouring countries, based on Iraqi interests, mutual interests and non-interference in internal affairs," Mr Hussein said in a joint press conference after meeting Mr Zarif.

"We stressed the necessity of keeping the region and Iraq out from international tensions and protecting Iraqi sovereignty.”

Mr Zarif said that “Iraqi-Iranian relations will not shake” and that Iraq’s sovereignty and its “positive role” in the region “need to be respected”.

He also called for increased trade and energy co-operation with Iraq, which relies heavily on Iranian gas and electricity imports to meet power demands.

Officials from Iraq, the US and the Gulf Co-operation Council last week discussed an arrangement for Iraq to import electricity from Kuwait, a deal which was agreed on last year but has yet to come into effect.

Iraqi officials told AFP that Mr Al Kadhimi would be travelling to Saudi Arabia on Monday with his ministers of oil, electricity, planning and finance.

They are set to stay in Neom, an area in the kingdom's north-west that is currently under development, and are scheduled to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with whom Mr Al Kadhimi is known to have warm ties.

Baghdad proposed a package of energy-focused development opportunities in Iraq to Saudi Arabia earlier this month, and the talks will likely focus on financing for those proposals, other infrastructure projects and a reopening of the Arar border crossing between the two countries, the officials said.

They said the delegation would then travel directly to Tehran late on Tuesday, where Mr Al Kadhimi is expected to meet supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Baghdad has often found itself caught between Riyadh, Tehran and even Washington, which Mr Al Kadhimi is also set to visit within the next few weeks.

Mr Al Kadhimi became prime minister in May after serving as the head of Iraq's National Intelligence Service for nearly four years.

He is known to be respected by Iran's intelligence services and government circles, which prompted speculation he could mediate between Tehran and Riyadh.

And Mr Al Kadhimi is well-liked in Washington, where he is expected later this month or in early August to pursue a strategic dialogue between Iraq and the US.

It would be the first visit by an Iraqi prime minister to the White House in three years. US officials never extended an invitation to previous prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, whom they regarded as being too close to Iran.

Tensions skyrocketed following the US drone strike that killed Suleimani, head of foreign operations for Iran's Revolutionary Guard, and Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, the head of the Iraqi paramilitaries.

Iran retaliated with missile strikes on Iraqi bases hosting US troops as part of the global coalition against ISIS, and a series of unclaimed rocket attacks have been directed at US-related sites including the embassy in Baghdad.

Local media reported that at least two rockets were fired at the embassy on Sunday as Mr Zarif met Iraqi officials, but with no casualties.

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