BAGHDAD – Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani met on Wednesday with Iraq’s top Shiite cleric in the central Iraqi city of Najaf, the final day of his first official visit to the neighboring Middle Eastern country.
Rouhani began Monday his three-day trip to Iraq with the aim of bolstering ties with the Shiite-majority Arab country, amid the United States’ renewed sanctions against the Islamic republic.
The spokesman for Najaf media center, Ihsan al-Abbasi, told EFE that Rouhani arrived in Najaf earlier Wednesday, accompanied with Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as well as other officials, to meet with Iraqi Shiite leader Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
Rouhani and al-Sistani, who is rarely seen in public, addressed bilateral ties and the importance of keeping Iraq out of regional and international conflicts, al-Abbasi added, giving no further details about the meeting.
The Iranian leader also visited the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf, one of the 12 holy figures of Shiite Islam, during his last stop of his trip to Iraq.
Iraq is a close ally of the United States and yet also maintains good relations with Iran, a country that supported the Shiite militias who fought in Iraq during the 2014-2017 campaign against Islamic State militants.
Sunni Muslims make up the largest branch of Islam and Shiite followers comprise the second-largest group globally, although regionally-specific religious demographics – such as in Iraq where Shiites out-number Sunnis nearly two to one – vary across the Muslim-majority world.
In May last year, United States President Donald Trump pulled out of the 2015 multilateral Iranian nuclear deal and re-imposed tough sanctions on Iran.
Since then, the US has demanded its allies impose sanctions against Iran as well, yet the Trump administration gave Iraq a 90-day waiver in December so that the Iraqis could import gas from Iran and meet its winter energy needs.
Recently, the Iraqi president Barham Salih denounced Trump’s remarks that US troops would remain in Iraq to be able to monitor Iran.
Around 5,200 US troops, who backed Iraq’s offensive against IS, remain deployed in a dozen military bases in Iraq.
The Iraqi government declared the country’s total liberation from IS in December 2017, after the terror organization was expelled from the large swathes of northern and western Iraq that it had controlled since mid-2014.
Ties between Iran and Iraq have strengthened after the 2003 toppling of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who fought the 1980-88 war against Tehran.