Iraqi PM seeks to boost ties on his first visit to Saudi Arabia

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Iraq will never become a launchpad for attacks on Saudi Arabia, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi pledged on Wednesday during a long-awaited visit to the kingdom aimed at forging closer economic and security ties.

In January, explosive-laden drones crashed into the main royal palace in Riyadh, with American media citing US officials as saying they were launched from neighbouring Iraq.

Saudi officials did not publicly disclose any details on the reported attack on the sprawling al-Yamama complex, the official residence and office of King Salman as well as the main base of the royal court.

But the news raised alarm in a country that has frequently come under missile and drone attacks from Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen, where the Riyadh-led coalition launched a military offensive six years ago.

A relatively unknown armed group in Iraq calling itself the Righteous Promise Brigade claimed responsibility for the strike but it was considered by security experts to be a front for more entrenched Iran-backed militias.

Al-Kadhimi said the group’s claim was “not true” and insisted that the attack was not launched from Iraq.

“We will not allow any attack on the kingdom,” he told reporters after what his aides described as an hours-long meeting with Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman popularly known as MBS.

“There haven’t been any attacks” from Iraq.

“There have been attempts by some to … disrupt relations” between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, he added, without elaborating.

Known to maintain close personal ties with MBS, al-Kadhimi walks a diplomatic tightrope as Baghdad often finds itself caught in the tug of war between Tehran and its rivals Riyadh and Washington.

Al-Kadhimi’s trip comes after the countries reopened their Arar land border crossing in November for the first time since Riyadh cut off diplomatic ties with Baghdad in 1990, following Iraqi ex-dictator Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.

Aside from a discussion on border security, Iraq and Saudi Arabia signed five agreements on Wednesday covering financial, commercial, economic, cultural and media fields, the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV channel reported.

The Iraqi prime minister said he and his delegation of senior ministers sought to further boost trade and economic cooperation with the kingdom during a day-long visit to Riyadh.

In a statement published by Saudi state media, the two countries agreed to establish a joint fund with an estimated capital of $3bn, a “contribution from the kingdom” to boost investment in the Iraqi economy.

Saudi Arabia’s investments in Iraq are expected to rise to 10 billion riyals ($2.67bn) from just over two billion riyals currently, the state-run SPA news agency said.

The countries also agreed to maintain energy cooperation to maintain stability in global oil markets, the joint statement added.

Iraq is the second-largest producer in the OPEC oil cartel, outranked only by Saudi Arabia.

Al-Kadhimi, whose government has sought to fast-track foreign investment including Saudi support for energy and agriculture, is pushing for deeper cooperation with Riyadh.

The Iraqi leader was scheduled to travel to Saudi Arabia on his first foreign trip as prime minister last July, but the visit was cancelled at the last minute when King Salman was hospitalised for surgery to remove his gallbladder.

His trip to Tehran, Riyadh’s archrival, went ahead, with the prime minister meeting Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in July.

 

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