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Iraqi Shi'ite leader visits UAE, strengthening ties with Sunni states

FILE PHOTO - Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr speaks during a protest against corruption and informs his followers about his will at Tahrir Square in Baghdad, Iraq March 24, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani

ERBIL, Iraq, (Reuters) - An influential Iraqi Shi’ite cleric plans to visit the United Arab Emirates on Sunday, strengthening his ties with Sunni-ruled states of the Middle East.

It will be the second such trip in as many months for Moqtada al-Sadr, who commands a large following among Iraq’s urban poor. He visited Saudi Arabia at the end of July.

The Emirati government will send a special plane to fly Sadr to the UAE and return him to Iraq, according to a statement on the cleric’s website.

The cleric is one of few Iraqi Shi’ite leaders to keep some distance from Shi’ite Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival and the main backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In April, Sadr called on Assad to “take a historic heroic decision” and step down, to spare his country further bloodshed.

Sadr’s office said his meetings end July with the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, resulted in an agreement to study possible investments in Shi’ite regions of southern Iraq. The Saudis will also consider the possibility of opening a consulate in Iraq’s holy Shi’ite city of Najaf, he said.

Sadr also announced a Saudi decision to donate $10 million to help Iraqis displaced by the war on Islamic State in Iraq, to be paid to the Iraqi government.

Baghdad and Riyadh had announced in June they would set up a coordination council to upgrade ties, as part of an attempt to heal troubled relations between the Arab neighbors.

Saudi Arabia reopened its embassy in Baghdad in 2015 following a 25-year break, and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir made a rare visit to Baghdad in February.

Reporting by Maher Chmaytelli, editing by Larry King