BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s prime minister condemned Saudi Arabia’s execution of Shi’ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr on Saturday amid calls from prominent religious and political figures to sever ties with Riyadh and abort a recent rapprochement.
The Sunni-ruled kingdom reopened its embassy in Baghdad this week for the first time since ties were cut in 1990 over Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, underscoring fence-mending efforts that could help boost a regional alliance against Islamic State militants.
But Saturday’s execution of Nimr drew calls in Iraq for the embassy to remain shuttered, while Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi warned of repercussions for regional security.
“I urge the government to refrain from opening the Saudi embassy,” prominent Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr said in a statement, calling for demonstrations in his country and across the Gulf to protest the execution.
Iranian-backed militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq accused Saudi Arabia of seeking to fuel Sunni-Shi’ite strife. “What is the use of having a Saudi embassy in Iraq?” the armed group said in a statement.
Qassim al-Araji, a leader of the Badr Organization, another Iranian-linked Shi’ite paramilitary group with a political wing, called on the government to cut diplomatic ties immediately.
He said Nimr’s execution had “opened the gates of hell”, in comments broadcast on al-Ghadeer, his group’s television channel.
Abadi, a moderate Shi’ite Islamist whose Dawa Party has ties to Iran, refrained from using such inflammatory language but said the execution would have consequences.
Muffling voices and executing opponents “would lead to nothing but more destruction,” he said in a statement expressing “intense shock” at the news.
Saudi Arabia executed 47 people on Saturday including Nimr, whom the government had accused of inciting violence against police. Nimr’s supporters say he was a peaceful dissident who called for greater rights for the kingdom’s Shi’ite minority.
Criticism of the execution was harsh and widespread in Iran, Lebanon and other countries with sizable Shi’ite populations.
Saudi Arabia has long accused fellow oil producer Iraq of being too close to Shi’ite power Iran and of encouraging sectarian discrimination against Sunnis, a charge Baghdad denies.
Some Iraqi politicians say Saudi Arabia is behind the rise of Islamic State, though the kingdom has disavowed the ultra-hardline version of Sunni Islam which the militant group favors.
Islamic State controls large parts of Iraq and neighboring Syria and claimed several deadly attacks inside Saudi Arabia last year.
Humam Hamoudi, a prominent Shi’ite politician and member of the powerful Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) party, warned that Nimr’s execution would benefit Islamic State by exacerbating sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shi’ites.
Former Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki said it would topple the Saudi government “as the crime of executing the martyr (Mohammed Baqir) al-Sadr did to Saddam (Hussein),” referring to another prominent Shi’ite cleric killed by the Iraqi government in 1980.
Writing by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Helen Popper and John Stonestreet