Iraq requests Saudi ambassador be changed

Mr Thamer al-Sabhan (left) meeting  Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari in Baghdad on Jan 14, 2016.
Mr Thamer al-Sabhan (left) meeting Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari in Baghdad on Jan 14, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

BAGHDAD (AFP) - Iraq has officially asked Saudi Arabia to recall its ambassador to Baghdad after the envoy allegedly told media outlets of a plot by Iran-backed Iraqi groups to assassinate him.

"The Iraqi foreign ministry has sent an official request to the Saudi foreign ministry to replace its ambassador to Iraq," ministry spokesman Ahmad Jamal said in a statement.

"Several statements and opinions voiced in the media overstepped the boundaries of diplomatic protocol and of an ambassador's duties," he said.

Mr Thamer al-Sabhan, whose credentials were received in January 2016, became the first Saudi ambassador to Iraq in a quarter century, after relations were cut following ex-president Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait.

His posting got off to a rocky start however, with popular anger among Iraq's Shiite majority over the execution by Saudi Arabia a few days earlier of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr.

Iraq has since been angered by the views Sabhan aired in the media and Mr Jamal said the envoy was repeatedly urged to refrain from commenting publicly on Iraqi affairs.

In January, Mr Sabhan gave an interview in which he criticised the Teheran-backed Shiite militia that make up the bulk of the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force battling jihadists alongside Iraqi security forces.

More recently, Baghdad was infuriated by a claim the ambassador allegedly made that those same groups were planning to assassinate him.

Mr Jamal said Mr Sabhan's claim was unsubstantiated and solely "aimed at undermining Iraq's image and questioning its ability to protect diplomatic delegations."

Iraqi officials have repeatedly accused the Gulf kingdom, a Sunni powerhouse, of abetting the Islamic State group, which took over swathes of the country in June 2014.