Ever since the Islamic Dawa Party came to power in 2006 — making Iraq the first Arab country to be ruled by a Shi’ite government since Saladin overthrew the Fatimids in Egypt in 1171 — there have been simmering tensions between Baghdad and Riyadh.
Last month, they reached a boiling point when Iraq ordered the execution of three Saudi prisoners despite pleas from Riyadh to transfer the death-row inmates to their homeland.
Nine more Saudis charged with capital offenses are slated to be executed this month.
One of them, Ali al-Shahri, has allegedly suffered excessive psychological and physical torture during his 13-year detention, leading to the amputation of his right leg, according to Saudi media sources.
Another Saudi prisoner, 22-year-old Ali Mohammed al-Habbabi, died in August of this year in Baghdad’s Rusafa Prison, purportedly due to inadequate medical care.
Although the concept of capital punishment is nothing new for either the Saudis or the Iraqis, the issue of the Saudi prisoners in Iraq has become a sensitive touchstone for the kingdom, and is igniting sectarian anger on both sides.
Saudi Arabia is demanding new trials for its nationals, who have been accused of being involved in terrorist groups operating in Iraq since 2003.
According to Saudi government sources, the 12 death-row inmates, along with 13 other Saudi prisoners which it is seeking to have repatriated, have already completed their sentences and are due for release, but Baghdad refuses to budge.
In total, there are about 80 Saudi prisoners in Iraq, and Riyadh is claiming that most of them have been given prejudicial trials and been discriminated against because of their Sunni heritage.
Baghdad has insisted that they were given fair trials and that their fate is now a matter of internal Iraqi affairs.
The prisoner clash is indicative of a much deeper riff in Saudi-Iraqi relations.
Late last month, Iraq agreed to supply desperately needed oil to Egypt, much to the chagrin of the Saudis, who had been using the flow of petroleum as a means of tethering Cairo into doing its bidding.
And in a show of diplomatic defiance, Riyadh’s ambassador to Baghdad, Thamer al Sabhan, who had presented his credentials to the Iraqi president in January as the first Saudi envoy into that country after a hiatus of more than 25 years due to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, was recalled at the start of this month.
Saudi Arabia has also courted Iraqi ire by meddling in the latter’s Kurdistan region.
For a long time, Saudi Arabia viewed Iraq as one more puppet in its regional political theater.
And the Sunni-led government of Saddam Hussein — with its brutal Ba’ath Party — was, for the most part, complicit in accepting Riyadh’s supremacy, just as long as Baghdad’s top political and military brass could keep racking in the millions in corrupt oil schemes.
But once Saddam was overthrown and the majority Shi’ites came to power, the Saudi-Iraqi love affair came to an abrupt end.
Now, Saudi Arabia is in an all-out power grab to create a pan-Arab (read Sunni) alliance across the Middle East, and damn be those (like Yemen and now Iraq) who dare to stand in its way.
At the other end of the Middle Eastern sectarian spectrum is Iran, which its strong Shi’ite tradition and unflinching support of the likes of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.
Iraq has historically been caught in the middle of the Sunni-Shi’ite tug-of-war.
With the execution of the Saudi prisoners, Iraq has now incurred the wrath of its more powerful (and much more politically stable) neighbor
That decision could lead to very costly consequences for Baghdad in the long run.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at email@example.com.