Iraqi PM due in Riyadh as Saudis seek to turn corner in rocky ties

Iraqi officials say PM Mustafa al-Kadhimi will travel to Saudi Arabia and Iran back-to-back next week in his first foreign trip as premier.

On Sunday, Kadhimi will host Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Baghdad, before travelling with Iraq’s ministers of oil, electricity, planning and finance to Saudi Arabia the following day, the officials said Saturday.

“They are set to stay in NEOM, an area in the kingdom’s northwest that is currently under development, and are scheduled to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with whom Kadhimi is known to have warm personal ties,” AFP reported.

The officials said 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.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan announced after a meeting in May with Ali Allawi, Iraq’s deputy premier and acting minister of finance and oil, in Riyadh that the kingdom would be sending back its ambassador to Baghdad as Riyadh sought closer ties with Iraq following the defeat of the Daesh.

The Saudi minister claimed that the kingdom supported Iraq’s efforts to achieve security and stability and that Riyadh respected Iraq’s sovereignty without foreign interference.

Such statements belie the stormy relations between Saudi Arabia and Iraq which for many years complained of Riyadh’s financial and logistical help to militants and Takfiri terrorists wreaking havoc in the region.

Washington and Riyadh have long been the main beneficiaries of mayhem in Iraq, where they have sought to bolster remnants of Daesh alongside other Takfiri outfits.

Unrest and insecurity serves the US goal to extend and justify its protracted military stay in Iraq, which is staunchly opposed by the Iraqi people. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, sees Takfiri groups as its best hope to wield influence in Iraq and prevent the empowerment of real stakeholders in the country.

Iraq’s Badr organization, which is part of the country’s Popular Mobilization Forces or Hashd al-Sha’abi, recently said the US and Saudi Arabia were after reviving Daesh by facilitating the return of its fugitive militants to Iraq, adding that frequent attacks conducted by the Takfiri terrorist group served that aim.

The organization said the renewed US-Saudi support for Daesh was similar to that of 2014, when the Takfiri outfit unleashed a campaign of death and destruction in Iraq and overran vast swathes in lightning attacks.

The headquarters of Kata’ib Hezbollah anti-terror group, which is part of Hashd al-Sha’abi, came under attack in Baghdad late last month, raising suspicions about the US role in Iraq.

More than a dozen members of the group were reportedly detained during the raid in southern Baghdad in the early hours of June 26, with initial reports saying several commanders of the anti-US group, which is integrated into Iraq’s security forces, were among those arrested.

An Iraqi official told Reuters news agency that at least three of the group’s detained commanders had been transferred over to the US military. A number of local media outlets also reported that American forces were involved in the raid.

On March 27, The New York Times reported that the Pentagon had ordered a secret directive, which called on US military commanders to prepare a campaign against Kata’ib Hezbollah.

On the economic front, the US administration is pushing for a deal between Washington, Baghdad and six Persian Gulf states to connect Iraq’s nationwide power grid to that of the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

The US State Department said in a statement on Thursday that the six countries that make up the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council Interconnection Authority (GCCIA) — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the UAE — had affirmed their shared support for the project to supply electricity to Iraq.

Currently, Iraq relies on Iran for trade and natural gas that generates as much as 45% of its electricity. Iran transmits another 1,200 megawatts directly, making itself an indispensable energy source for its Arab neighbor, but the United States is trying to pry Baghdad away from Tehran’s orbit.

The US has been enlisting its companies and allies such as Saudi Arabia to replace Iran as Iraq’s source of energy.

In the past, officials in Baghdad have said there is no easy substitute to imports from Iran because it would take years to adequately build up Iraq’s energy infrastructure.

They have said American demand acknowledges neither Iraq’s energy needs nor the complex relations between Baghdad and Tehran.

However, the US and its allies in the Persian Gulf hope that Kadhimi would go beyond some of the more established ways of thinking.

While the Saudis are about to receive the new Iraqi premier with pomp next week, the Americans are eagerly looking forward to Kadhimi’s visit to Washington later this month or in early August to pursue a “strategic dialogue” in the hope of securing a long-term military stay.

It would be the first visit by an Iraqi premier to the White House in three years. US officials never extended an invitation to previous prime minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, whom they saw not amenable to influence-peddling.

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