Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has issued a statement after meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in which he said that Iraq hopes to “enhance relations with its neighbors on the basis of respecting the sovereignty of others” while stressing the need to keep arms under the control of the state.
The statement released on Wednesday said al-Sistani “expressed his welcome for any step to enhance Iraq’s relations with its neighbors in accordance with the interests of the two parties and on the basis of respecting the sovereignty of states and non-interference in their internal affairs.”
Al-Sistani famously called Iraqis to arms against ISIS in 2014, giving rise to the Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization) paramilitary alliance, which includes Iran-backed Shiite groups.
Those forces have since been placed under the command of regular Iraqi forces and several former fighters are now members of the Iraqi parliament.
Iran and Iraq fought a devastating eight-year war in the 1980s but their relations shifted drastically with the American-led overthrow of Sunni Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The Iraqi Shiite cleric also stressed “the need for regional and international policies in this sensitive region to be balanced and moderate in order to avoid further tragedies and damage.”
Al-Sistani, a spiritual leader to most of Iraq’s Shiites and some in Iran, heads the religious establishment of Najaf, a Shiite holy city in Iraq.
In 2013, he refused to meet then-president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Rouhani is on his first trip to Iraq since becoming president in 2013.