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Iran's Zarif In Baghdad As Iraq Seeks To Balance Regional Ties


Iranian Foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks to the media in Baghdad on July 19.

Iran's foreign minister has held a series of meetings with top officials in Baghdad as Iraq's new prime minister seeks to balance complex regional ties.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on July 19 met with his Iraqi counterpart, Fuad Hussein, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, President Barham Salih, the head of Iraq's Supreme Judicial Council, Faeq Zeidan, and the leaders of some parliamentary blocs.

Zarif will also travel to Irbil to meet with officials in the autonomous Kurdish region.

Several hours after Zarif landed in Baghdad, three mortar shells struck the heavily fortified Green Zone, where Iraq's government and many foreign embassies are located. No casualties were reported.

The high-level Iranian visit to Baghdad comes as Kadhimi heads to Iran's regional rival, Saudi Arabia, on July 20, followed a day later by an official visit to Tehran.

In Saudi Arabia, Kadhimi will meet Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman to work on expanding economic cooperation, while in Iran he is expected to meet Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The trips have heightened speculation that Iraq may seek a mediating role to sooth regional tensions between Tehran and Riyadh in a bid to avoid their rivalry playing out in Iraq.

Iraq is walking a tricky tightrope trying to balance its close economic, political, and security ties with Iran, while expanding relations with Tehran's rival gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia.

"Iraq seeks to assert its balanced and positive role in making peace and progress in the region," Kadhimi tweeted after the meeting with Zarif.

After meeting with Foreign Minister Hussein, Zarif said a strong and peaceful Iraq is inseparable from the security of Iran.

"For us, a strong Iraq, a peaceful and tranquil Iraq, and an Iraq with good and constructive relations with all of its neighbors is a synonym to our own strength, tranquility, stability, and peace," Zarif said.

The former chief of Iraqi intelligence, Kadhimi emerged as a compromise candidate for the premiership in May with the tacit support of Tehran, Washington, and Riyadh.

He came to the premiership after his predecessor was forced to resign under the pressure of months of mass protests against corruption, poor services, and Iranian influence in the country.

Iraq also seeks to avoid becoming a battleground in escalating tensions between Iran and the United States, which has some 5,000 troops based in the country. The U.S. troops have supported Iraq's fight against the Islamic State extremist group but are viewed by Iran as a threat.

Iraq's concerns about becoming a proxy battlefield have been heightened since a U.S. drone strike in January in Baghdad killed top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of the Iran-backed Kataib Hizbullah militia and deputy head of Iraq's state-sanctioned Popular Mobilization Units.

That drone strike led Iran to retaliate by firing missiles at Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops and came close to unleashing a full-blown war between Iran and the United States.

Since taking up office in May, Kadhimi has struggled to fulfill a promise to rein in Iran-backed paramilitary groups, which are accused of carrying out rocket attacks on U.S. military and diplomatic facilities.

In late June, Iraqi security forces detained 14 members of Kataib Hizbullah during a raid in Baghdad, saying that they were planning attacks on U.S. interests.

Under pressure, the government released all but one of the militia members days later, in a sign of how difficult it will be for the state to control paramilitary groups.

Kadhimi is also set to visit Washington in the coming weeks.

In addition to addressing their security relationship, the United States is urging Iraq to develop its diplomatic and economic ties to its Persian Gulf neighbors.

In particular, the United States has pressured Iraq to end its electricity dependence on Iran by expanding energy ties with Gulf Cooperation Council members.

With reporting by AFP, AP, dpa, and Reuters
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