Iraq’s fight against Isis threatened by Saudi-Iran feud

Sectarian tensions harm efforts to combat Islamic State with Shia-Sunni alliance

The fighting has finally stopped in Ramadi, a major city in the Sunni heartland. Islamic State has been ousted, and the Iraqi flag is flying once again. But Iraq's government defeated Islamic State, also known as Isis, only with the help of Sunni tribes, which soothed local distrust of the Shia-led central government. Now, as Iraq faces the even greater challenge of routing Isis from other cities, it is confronted with a heated conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia that threatens to inflame sectarian tensions across the entire region.

For Iraq, which barely survived years of sectarian civil war, the hostilities between Iran and Saudi Arabia could once again foil Sunni-Shia co-operation – and empower Islamic State. “For sure, the rise in sectarian tensions creates a fertile environment for the growth of Isis,” Saad al-Hadithi, a spokesman for Iraq’s prime minister, said on Tuesday. “All of this helps Isis in building its fighting forces and getting support.”

When the Sunni monarchy in Saudi Arabia executed a Shia cleric along with 46 other prisoners over the weekend, it sparked the outrage of Iran, a majority Shia theocracy. An Iranian mob ransacked and burned the Saudi embassy in Tehran, and Saudi Arabia responded by severing diplomatic ties with Iran. Several of Saudi Arabia’s allies quickly followed suit.

Now there are fears the bad blood will sabotage the fledgling efforts to ease the many crises roiling the region, including the civil wars in Syria and Yemen. "I normally try to play down difficulty, but this is a huge setback," Jan Eliasson, the deputy secretary general of the United Nations, said on Tuesday. "It's a combination of regional geopolitical consequences and the fact that the sectarian element is playing such a role. Emotions are running so high."


Tread carefully

Iraq, in particular, finds itself in a difficult position with a central government aligned with the United States and Iran. Iraq's prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has tread carefully, cautiously condemning the execution but not heeding calls from Shia protesters to cut diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia.

"This new round of Iran-Saudi Arabia tensions is likely to challenge Abadi's ability to jockey between the United States and Iran," said Maria Fantappie, an Iraq analyst at the International Crisis Group. Still, analysts, Iraqi politicians and tribal leaders said that so far, there was no indication that the regional tensions were having an immediate impact inside Iraq. They said that al-Abadi had managed to navigate a middle ground, in part because Iraq's Sunni leaders are not as closely tied to Saudi Arabia as in many other countries in the region.

“The problem between Iran and Saudi will not affect us,” said Rafi al-Issawi, a tribal leader in Anbar who supports the government operations against Isis. “We have given tens of martyrs not for Iran or Saudi, but for our country, for the city of Ramadi,” he said, adding, “Let us liberate our country from Isis, better than Saudi and Iran.”

The most recent round of tensions began on Saturday, with the announcement that the Saudi government had executed a dissident Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. He had criticised the Saudi royal family – and had declared that oppressive rulers should be confronted regardless of sect, criticising the Iran-backed authoritarian president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.

While reactions came quickly, Iraq trod a middle ground, condemning the execution but assuring Saudis that their new embassy could stay and would be protected. Iraq had been making progress in mending relations with Gulf neighbours – including Saudi Arabia – after they were soured by Saddam Hussein's invasion of neighbouring Kuwait in 1990. The Saudi embassy in Baghdad, shut for 25 years, had reopened last Friday, a day before the diplomatic feud.

After al-Nimr was executed, some Iraqi Shia groups close to Iran quickly demanded that it be closed. At one point, protesters gathered near the fortified Green Zone, where the Saudi and other embassies are. But al-Abadi decided that closing the Saudi embassy was “not in the interests of Iraq”, said Hadithi, his spokesman, adding, “The Iraqi government preserves its relations with the countries of the world, and that includes Saudi Arabia.”

Al-Abadi did issue a statement expressing “great sorrow and sad shock” at the execution, and criticising what he called Saudi Arabia’s “mouth-muzzling policy”. He called free expression of opinions and peaceful opposition “basic rights”, and said that violating them would lead to insecurity and instability.

Crucial ties

Al-Abadi’s main task in office has been to maintain crucial ties with Shia forces, often backed by Iran, which have proved more effective than the army in the fight against Isis, while also restoring ties with the Sunni minority. Many Sunnis’ sense of neglect by the Shia-led government in Baghdad helped create the opening for the Islamic State to seize much of the north and west of Iraq in 2014.

Most analysts believe he has done a decent job of this – at least better than his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, who presided over discriminatory policies that alienated many Sunnis. His challenge now, as he looks north to the greater challenge of trying to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, is to retain the support of Sunni tribes.

Tensions flared last summer after Shia forces helped oust Isis from Sunni areas like the city of Tikrit. There were reports that Shia fighters forced Sunnis from their homes and looted their property. But by contrast, Ramadi was taken by a combination of Iraqi security forces and armed Sunni fighters from the area – with the help of heavy US air strikes, which had been less forthcoming when Iranian-backed militias led the fight in Tikrit.

Hamid al-Mutlaq, a Sunni lawmaker from Fallujah, said that the success of Iraqi security forces in Ramadi was because the government had found the right force to fight for the city. “In Anbar, we refused letting the popular mobilisation groups come to work with the army and the police,” he said, using the local term for Shia militias and referring to the province. “We asked the sons of Anbar to work with the security forces to liberate Ramadi, fearing the problems that happened elsewhere.”

Sectarian tensions

He said that rising sectarian tensions in the region were not good for the fight against the Islamic State, which has appealed for recruits and support by characterising Shias as the enemy. “This tension pulls apart the unity that we need to fight Isis,” he said.

At the same time, Zaid al-Ali, a lecturer and fellow at Princeton University and the author of The Struggle for Iraq's Future, said the specifics of the Saudi-Iran split would have relatively little effect on Iraqis. Iraqi history has left Saudi Arabia with a more complicated relationship with Iraq's Sunnis than it has with its sectarian brethren in other Arab countries, he said.

“The Saudis consider Iraqi Sunnis to be republican agitators, and the Iraqi Sunnis don’t really like the Saudis either,” he added. “Although some are happy to take their money.”

New York Times