Iran FM visits Baghdad ahead of Iraq PM trip to Saudi Arabia

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Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, right, wears a mask to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus walks with his Iraqi counterpart, Fouad Hussein during his visit to Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, July 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

BAGHDAD – Iran's foreign minister on Sunday stressed that Iran-Iraq relations would not be “shaken” ahead of the Iraqi prime minister's planned visit this week to Saudi Arabia, Iran's regional rival.

Several hours after Mohammad Javad Zarif landed in Baghdad, three mortars struck near the U.S. Embassy in the heavily fortified Green Zone without causing any losses, according two security officials. The Green Zone is the seat of Iraq's government and home to many foreign embassies. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Zarif's visit to Iraq was the first since the American assassination of top Iranian Gen. Qassim Soleimani outside Baghdad’s international airport in January. The drone strike catapulted Iraq to the brink of a U.S.-Iran proxy war that could have destabilized the Middle East.

The visit also came as the Iraqi government tussles with Iran-backed militia groups, some of which have become increasingly difficult to control in the absence of Soleimani and senior Iranian militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was also killed in the strike. In late June, Iraq raided the headquarters of the Iran-backed group Kataib Hezbollah over a spate of rocket and mortar attacks targeting the U.S. installations in Iraq. Most of the fighters were later released.

Facing near-weekly rocket attacks, the U.S. Embassy recently installed C-RAM defense systems. It was unclear if the system was operational during the attack Sunday afternoon. The daytime attack was unusual; most have occurred after nightfall. The U.S. has blamed Kataib Hezbollah for previous attacks.

Upon his arrival, Zarif paid a visit to the site where Soleimani was killed, saying “Iran-Iraq relations will not be shaken” despite the general's death, which Zarif called “a major loss” in the fight against the Islamic State group. Soleimani led Iran’s expeditionary Quds Force and was the architect of its regional military activities.

The Iranian minister met with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, a day before the premier was set to fly to Riyadh, then to Tehran on Tuesday.

“Iraq seeks to assert its balanced and positive role in making peace and progress in the region,” al-Kadhimi tweeted during the meeting with Zarif.

Al-Kadhimi's advisors said his visit to Riyadh seeks to open new avenues for economic cooperation, while also enhancing Iraq's potential to be a regional mediator. But here, al-Kadhimi walks a fine line.

Both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia accept Iraq playing the role of intermediary, said Hisham Daoud, the premier's advisor. “The Gulf and the Americans want Iraq to have its sovereignty, and to them this means distance from Iran.”

Iran, meanwhile, “wants Iraq to be a messenger, but this will not be acceptable to Iraq and to al-Kadhimi,” he said.

Iraq’s Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein said he and Zarif “stressed that we want balanced relations with all neighboring countries, based on Iraqi interests, mutual interests and non-interference in internal affairs."

“We stressed the necessity of keeping the region and Iraq out from international tensions and protecting Iraqi sovereignty,” Hussein told reporters after their meeting.

The two diplomats discussed trade, as border points were recently reopened and fortified with additional security forces in line with reform plans devised by Iraq's government. Talks encompassed energy and investment, with Iraq relying heavily on Iranian gas and electricity imports to meet power demands.

“Iran has good relations with Iraq on the energy level and will continue to,” said Zarif. "There are many agreements with Iraq that will be activated.”