BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Baghdad and Tehran sought on Tuesday to ease bilateral political tensions, as Iraq’s prime minister said it would not allow any threat to Iran coming from its territory.
Mustafa al-Kadhimi, visiting Tehran and speaking at a news conference alongside Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, alluded to Iraq’s concern not to become a battlefield between Iran and the United States, who are arch-enemies.
“The people of Iraq want good relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran based on the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of both countries,” he told the conference, carried live by Iranian state television.
The Iraqi premier faces a tough balancing act between Tehran and Washington, which have come close to open conflict in the region, particularly on Iraqi soil, over the past year.
At home, Kadhimi faces increasing pressure from Iran-aligned parties and paramilitary groups who perceive him as siding with the United States because he has indicated he wants to curb the power of Iranian-backed militias and political groups.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, during a later meeting with Kadhimi, praised the Popular Mobilisation Forces, an Iraqi state-controlled institution that is an umbrella grouping of militias, many backed by Iran.
Khamenei also said Iran would not interfere in relations between Iraq and the United States, according to his official website.
Kadhimi, making his first foreign trip as premier, said in his news conference that Iraq was a country “that won’t allow any aggression or challenge to Iran from its territory.”
In Kadhimi’s first two months in office, Iraqi security forces carried out two raids against militias but most of those arrested were quickly released.
The United States praised those moves.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Baghdad on Sunday, making a stop at the site where a U.S. drone strike killed Iranian military mastermind Qassem Soleimani and Iraq’s paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in January.
That action brought the region to the brink of a full-blown U.S.-Iran conflict.
Khamenei said on Tuesday that Iran would “strike a reciprocal blow” against Washington for Soleimani’s killing.
(Reporting by Amina Ismail in Cairo, John Davison in Baghdad and Babak Dehghanpisheh; Editing by Mark Heinrich and John Stonestreet)