Saudi Arabia has held meetings with two leaders from Iraq that have a violent sectarian past. In a bid to counter Iran's influence, the Saudis might be getting into bed with those accused of serious crimes against the Sunni population in Iraq.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets with Iraqi Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia July 30, 2017.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets with Iraqi Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia July 30, 2017.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is lampooned on a regular basis by the press for being the progenitor of the ultra-conservative Sunni ideology that spawned such extremist groups as al-Qaeda and more recently the so-called Islamic State terrorist organisation, also known as Daesh.

While discussions about so-called "Wahhabism" are not the thrust of this piece, it is important to state that such reports are baseless, and display an ignorance of the pragmatism of the Saudi state as well as the fact that these groups often target Saudi Arabia itself.

According to the media, Riyadh is responsible for the takfiri strain of thought, a radical ideology of excommunication that declares other Muslims as heretics in order to justify their killing. Quite often, the subjects of takfir are the Shia, viewed as a heterodoxy to Sunni orthodoxy, who are then targeted by "Wahhabi inspired" al-Qaeda, ISIS and others in suicide bombings and gun attacks. The claim by these groups that they are killing the Shia because they seek to defend the Sunnis is a common claim.

It should come as quite a surprise to many, then, that the Saudis – who are allegedly behind some of the most violent takfiri groups of the modern era – spent most of last month inviting what many consider to be Shia takfiri militant organisations to break bread with the House of Saud and cut deals with them. Even more interesting is that these extremist Shia Islamists are intricately tied to the ayatollah regime in Iran, Saudi Arabia's avowed enemy.

Saudi courts Iran proxy

In mid-July, Riyadh invited a high-level Iraqi Shia delegation to visit the conservative Sunni kingdom. The guest of honour was none other than Interior Minister Qasim al-Araji, who not only enjoyed the dinner and company of senior Saudi royals and officials, but also managed to cut deals over security cooperation, counter-terrorism efforts, intelligence sharing and easing visa restrictions for Iraqis wanting to visit Saudi Arabia. Saudi officials even made an offer of goodwill by allocating 1,800 Hajj visas to Shia fighters in sectarian militias.

What many do not know about Araji is that the ministry he controls has been held by the Badr Organisation since the days of the US occupation in Iraq that was supposedly, and laughably, meant to deliver Iraqis from tyranny and indiscriminate murder. Badr was formed by Iran in the 1980s to help Tehran in its war against Iraq between 1980-88, and gathered Iraqi Shia Islamist militants with loyalties to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini before him. Araji is not only the current interior minister, but he is also a card carrying member of Badr.

Post-2003, Badr became one of the most powerful components of the new Iraqi state and took control of the interior ministry and, by extension, police forces around the country. Under the leadership of former minister Bayan Jabr Solagh, the Badr-controlled interior ministry undertook a campaign of wholesale sectarian murder and slaughter of Sunni "undesirables", with the Pentagon's knowledge.

Sadr as a "nationalist", not a sectarian

But it was not only Badr that was courted by Saudi Arabia last month. Mere weeks after Araji's visit, and upon the personal invitation of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, firebrand Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr was seen eating meals and cutting deals with the Saudis.

According to Saudi strategic logic, Sadr is perceived as an Iraqi nationalist, and not necessarily an Iranian stooge with religious and sectarian loyalty to his co-religionists in Iran – subordinated to senior ayatollahs. Riyadh, then, intends to pull Shia heavyweights out of Iran's orbit by offering them incentives to cooperate with the Sunni kingdom instead, which has long portrayed itself as the guardians of the Sunnis against encroaching Shia radicalism emanating from Iran.

However, this move has been short-sighted, with Saudi Arabia's "defender of the Sunnis" credentials now being called into doubt, as Sadr is far from an Iraqi nationalist. Sadr's militia – then called the Army of the Mahdi, or Jaysh al-Mahdi in Arabic – joined Badr in its killing spree against Sunni Arabs following a suspected al-Qaeda bombing of a major Shia shrine in the central Iraqi city of Samarra in 2006.

More than just Sadr's military connections to Iran, he also has a very strong religious connection. Aside from his Iranian heritage and the fact that his father was Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, Sadr's father-in-law was the famed Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, who was trumpeted by Ayatollah Khomeini as the leader of the 'Islamic Revolution' in Iraq. This led the former dictator Saddam Hussein to perceive him as a subversive Shia Islamist threat to his secular Ba'athist rule, and ultimately to his execution.

Sadr's Iran-trained, equipped, and financed "army" slaughtered thousands of Sunni civilians – including several of my relatives – in brutal execution killings, employing such methods as drilling through their victims' muscle and bone, gouging out their eyes, tearing out their fingernails, burning them with acid and smashing their bones.

Although Sadr has now implicated Iran in the 2006 Askari shrine bombing that ignited the sectarian strife, many would say that such admissions are too little, too late. Sadr must have known that Iran was involved all along, yet stayed quiet for years until Saudi Arabia decided to extend a hand – and around $10 million – to him. Time will tell how long Sadr's loyalty will last, or if Iran will retaliate and force him back in line.

Moqtada himself is still a student at the Iranian seminaries in Iran's clerical capital of Qom. These links to Iran cannot be ignored when assessing the likelihood of Saudi success in pulling the major Shia clerical families into their sphere of influence, and has been clearly overlooked by bin Salman.

A hypocritical charm offensive

While I do believe the notion that Saudi Arabia is behind the extremism of al-Qaeda and ISIS is overly simplistic and propagandist in nature, there is much to be said for its recent charm offensive and its courtship of radical Shia Iraqi groups. After all, it has been only a few months since Saudi accused neighbouring Qatar of supporting Iranian proxies in the region, and this would thus make Riyadh's latest policy hypocritical.

There is no way that Badr and Sadr can ever be seen as Iraqi nationalist organisations, or even groups that are remotely non-sectarian. Both of these factions ultimately could not have thrived in Iraq without direct Iranian support, and Iran has spent decades nurturing and developing them. The occasional tantrum against Tehran by Sadr does not make him anti-Iranian influence in Iraq, but it means that he is a pragmatist who is often in competition with other Iranian proxies.

If Saudi money should run dry, or if Iran should decide to make an example out of Sadr for seemingly selling them out over the Askari shrine bombing, things will return to business as usual. The only difference this time will be that Saudi Arabia would have lost all claim to Sunni leadership due to the perception that it was willing to get in bed with those who have been slaughtering Sunnis for over a decade.

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