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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 October 2018

Iraq's new house speaker challenges US sanctions on Iran

Relations between Baghdad and Tehran are now closer than ever

Iraqi new Parliament Speaker Mohammed Al Halbousi, 37, center, and his political bloc hold a press conference In Baghdad, Iraq. AP
Iraqi new Parliament Speaker Mohammed Al Halbousi, 37, center, and his political bloc hold a press conference In Baghdad, Iraq. AP

In a blow to Iraq's leading political coalition that has attempted to distance itself from Iran, Baghdad's newly elected parliamentary speaker Mohammed Al Halbousi voiced his support for Tehran on Monday and opposed Washington's renewed economic sanctions on its neighbour.

Iran is a key power broker in Iraq and many of the militias that played a central role in ousting ISIS are known to have close ties to Tehran. Iraq has been in political paralysis since May elections that saw nationalist cleric Moqtada Al Sadr's bloc win most seats in parliament but fall short of forming a majority.

Mr Al Halbousi, a Sunni politician backed by a pro-Iran bloc led by Hadi Al Ameri’s Conquest Alliance, said on Monday that lawmakers in Baghdad oppose any economic pressure on Iran during a phone call with his Iranian counterpart, Ali Larijani.

"Iraq will always be with the Iranian people,” he said, adding that the country will support Tehran in restoring stability and security to the region.

US President Donald Trump withdrew Washington from an international deal aimed at limiting Iran’s nuclear program earlier this year and reimposed trade sanctions.

Those restrictions include penalties for transactions with Iran in US currency, gold, precious metals, graphite, coal and semi-finished metals, as well as large sales of Iranian rials and the issuing of Iranian debt. US imports of food and carpets from Iran are also restricted.

Washington warned there will be consequences for countries that do not respect the sanctions.

There is an internal Sunni dispute in government that pushed Mr Al Halbousi to become speaker of the house, Renad Mansour, senior research fellow at London's Chatham House told The National.

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"Halbousi and Khamis Al Khanjar [a Sunni business mogul] is seeking to maximize his power and influence by allying with Nouri Al Maliki and Hadi Al Amiri who are much closer to Iran," Mr Mansour said, adding the businessman was able to get ride of the stronger Sunni political opposition.

Sunni rivals of Mr Al Khanjar describe him as a self-promoter and accuse him of putting his desire for power above Iraq’s stability.

"That’s why the decision was made to stick to the Amiri-Maliki bloc and so Al Halbousi was a product of that," Mr Mansour said.

After Mr Al Halbousi was elected as speaker of the house, members of Mr Al Sadr's coalition walked out of Saturday's parliamentary session.

Mr Al Sadr has challenged foreign influence in Iraq, especially Iranian and American. The anti-corruption cleric whose "Iraq First" message during his electoral campaign appealed to voters across sectarian divides has left both Washington and Tehran on edge.

Iran hailed the selections made by Iraq’s parliament. Lawmakers picked candidates backed by a pro-Tehran bloc as speaker and first deputy.

Mr Al Halbousi's election marks the starts of a 90-day process outlined in the constitution, designed to eventually lead to a new government

“The Islamic Republic of Iran supports decisions made by the Iraqi people’s elected representative,” foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said on Sunday. “Iran has always supported Iraq’s democracy, territorial integrity and national sovereignty,” he said.

"We hope we will soon witness the election of the president and prime minister to form a new Iraqi government," said Mr Ghasemi.

The post of first deputy speaker was given to Hassan Karim, put forward by populist Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr whose list won the largest share of seats in the election.

Before running in May's national election as a candidate on the Anbar Our Identity electoral list, Mr Al Halbousi was governor of the Sunni-majority province of Anbar, one of the main battlegrounds of the war against ISIS, until he was elected to parliament in the May 12 polls.