BAGHDAD: Iraq’s Foreign Ministry said the government yesterday formally requested that the Saudi ambassador in Baghdad be replaced after he claimed that Iranian-backed militias are plotting to assassinate him. Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Jamal told AP that the government sent a formal request to Saudi Arabia to replace the kingdom’s ambassador in Baghdad, Thamer Al-Sabhan. Jamal said Sabhan’s reported comments are untrue and harm relations between the two countries. He said the allegations are considered interference in Iraq’s internal affairs and that Sabhan has not provided the ministry with any proof or evidence of these claims.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are regional rivals and broke off diplomatic ties in January after several years of frayed relations. In 2011, US authorities said they had disrupted an Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington at the time. Sabhan was quoted as telling the Saudi-owned Al-Hayat newspaper that Iraqi intelligence provided him with information about the assassination plans. He said this was happening as Iran tries to block reform efforts in Iraq and other Arab countries.
Sabhan was also quoted by the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya news channel saying “sectarian radical groups” are behind the threats. The channel, quoting unnamed sources, alleged that Iranian-backed senior figures in Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Committee are among those behind the assassination plots and that they had given the Iraqi Foreign Ministry a deadline to expel Sabhan. In the Saudi-owned Ashraq Al-Awsat newspaper, an unnamed Iraqi official was quoted as saying militias were planning to attack the ambassador’s armored cars with rocket-propelled grenades.
In an interview aired on Iraqi channel Wesal TV, Aws Al-Khafaji, who heads the Iraqi militia group Abu al-Fadhl Al-Abbas, said many factions in Iraq want to target Sabhan. “If Sabhan was killed in Iraq, any factions involved would admit it, especially because he is wanted … We clearly stated that we do not want Sabhan in Iraq.” he said, before adding that if he were assassinated, “it will be an honor and will be proudly admitted.”
Sabhan, responding to messages expressing solidarity with him after the Iraqi announcement, tweeted: “I am a servant of this (Saudi) leadership which is seeking to assist the truth and the wellbeing of Muslims, may God preserve it.” In the interview on Al Arabiya, he said Saudi Arabia’s policies on Iraq would not change. “We have a very amicable relationship with Iraqi politicians that the media does not depict,” he added.
Sabhan, whose credentials were received in Jan 2016, became the first Saudi ambassador to Iraq in a quarter century, after relations were cut following ex-president Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. His posting got off to a rocky start however, with popular anger among in Iraq over the execution by Saudi Arabia a few days earlier of cleric Nimr Al-Nimr. Iraq has since been angered by the views Sabhan aired in the media and Jamal said the envoy was repeatedly urged to refrain from commenting publicly on Iraqi affairs. In January, Sabhan gave an interview in which he criticized the Tehran-backed militia that make up the bulk of the Hashed Al-Shaabi paramilitary force battling militants alongside Iraqi security forces.