Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric tells Rouhani ties must respect sovereignty

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric told Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday that Iraqi sovereignty must be respected and weapons kept in state hands, a veiled reference to increasingly influential Iran-backed militias.

It was the first meeting between an Iranian president and the 88-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who rarely weighs in on politics but exerts wide influence over Iraqi public opinion.

Sistani welcomed “any steps to strengthen Iraq’s relations with its neighbours … based on respect for the sovereignty of the countries and no interference in domestic affairs”, a statement from his office said.

“The most important challenges facing Iraq are fighting corruption, improving services and keeping weapons in the hands of the state and its security services,” it added.

The meeting came on the third day of a visit by Rouhani to Iraq which aimed to project Iran’s political and economic dominance in Baghdad and expand commercial ties to help offset renewed U.S. sanctions meant to isolate and weaken Tehran.

Iran and Iraq, both majority Shi’ite Muslim countries, signed several preliminary trade accords on Monday, Iraqi officials said, including deals on oil, health, and a railway linking the southern Iraqi oil city of Basra and an Iranian border town.

Sistani’s comments will chime with the concerns of many Iraqis that powerful Shi’ite militias, which are increasing their military and political influence after the defeat of Sunni Muslim extremist group ISIS remain subservient to their Iranian patrons.

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