Prominent Iraqi Shiite political leader Muqtada al-Sadr met with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in Tehran on Tuesday, amid divisions between Iraq’s Shiite factions.
Photographs published by Khamenei’s official website show al-Sadr, Khamenei, and other top Iranian government officials and commanders attending the Shiite religious festival Ashura in Tehran.
Al-Sadr had previously been a close Iranian ally following the US invasion of Iraq, but relations have recently deteriorated.
Al-Sadr had criticised the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) militias for rushing to Iran’s aid, after floods hit Iran in April, while ignoring Iraqis’ sufferings, according to him.
“We are ready to help Iran or any other neighbours once Iraqis stop suffering from floods,” al-Sadr said in a statement published on his Twitter account.
Al-Sadr has been vocally critical of Iranian influence in Iraq and campaigned on a platform of Iraqi nationalism in Iraq’s 2018 national elections. He emerged with the largest bloc of seats in the parliamentary elections and won the right to form a new government.
Al-Sadr also made a rare visit to Saudi Arabia in July 2017, where he met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in what was his first visit to the Kingdom in nearly 11 years.
Some observers suspected al-Sadr had been "summoned" to Tehran after statements challenging Iran and its Iraqi allies in the PMU militias.
The Iraqi cleric recently launched a Twitter campaign against the more hardline elements of the PMU militias and even took aim at the Iraqi government, saying Iraq was becoming a "rogue" state.
Others said it might indicate a vote of confidence in him by Iran's top leadership over the PMU militias political arm, the Fatah alliance.
Many noted it was strange to see Sadr outside Iraq on Ashura, a holy day during which millions travel to Karbala.
Alongside Khamenei and al-Sadr, other noteworthy attendees on Tuesday included judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps - Quds Force (IRGC – QF) commander Ghassem Soleimani, IRGC chief Hossein Salami, and the head of the IRGC Aerospace Force, Amir Ali Hajizadeh.