Iraqi Shia cleric demands govt dismantle paramilitary groups

AFP , Friday 4 Aug 2017

Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr(Photo: Reuters)

Influential Iraqi Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr on Friday called on the Baghdad government to dismantle the paramilitary Hashed al-Shaabi umbrella organisation dominated by Iran-backed Shia militias.

Sadr was speaking to thousands of supporters in the Iraqi capital after a rare visit at the weekend to Sunni-ruled regional kingpin Saudi Arabia, a staunch rival of the Shia-dominated Islamic republic of Iran.

In a speech broadcast on huge screens, Sadr urged Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to dismantle Hashed and "integrate into the army the disciplined members" of the paramilitary force, an AFP reporter said.

Sadr also called on the authorities to "seize the arsenal of all armed groups".

The Hashed al-Shaabi is nominally under Abadi's command, but some of its components have for years been sending fighters to support Damascus in its six-year-old conflict against various rebel factions.

The paramilitary force took part in the battle to retake Iraq's second city Mosul from the Islamic State (IS) militant group, and could join future operations aimed at routing the Islamist militants from areas of the country they still hold.

IS still controls swathes of western Iraq, including much of the desert province of Anbar. Rival forces, which largely cooperated against the Islamist militants in Mosul, are expected to compete for a share of the spoils.

Sadr led a militia that fought against the US occupation of Iraq.

He is now seen as a nationalist who has repeatedly called for protests against corruption in the Iraqi government, and his supporters have staged huge protests in Baghdad calling for electoral reform.

On Thursday, Sadr issued a new call for protests in Baghdad and other cities to denounce "corrupt politicians" and demand reforms.

Last week he paid a visit to Saudi Arabia, with his office saying in a statement the trip was in response to an "official invitation".

The official Saudi Press Agency published pictures of Sadr with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, and said they discussed Saudi-Iraqi relations and "a number of issues of mutual interest".

The visit came with the Gulf embroiled in its worst crisis in years -- a row between Qatar and four Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia which severed ties with Doha, accusing it of funding extremism and fostering ties with Iran.

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