January 10, 2020 / 12:52 PM / a month ago

WRAPUP 3-Cleric fears worse bloodshed in Iraq as U.S.-Iran conflict persists

* Iraqi cleric criticises U.S., Iran for attacks in Iraq

* U.S. Congress votes to curb Trump powers

* Crash of Ukrainian plane complicates tense situation

* Middle East still on edge despite pause in hostilties (adds Iranian cleric)

By Ahmed Aboulenein and Babak Dehghanpisheh

BAGHDAD/DUBAI, Jan 10 (Reuters) - Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric on Friday condemned the U.S.-Iranian military confrontation taking place on Iraqi soil, saying it risked plunging the war-ravaged country and the wider Middle East into deeper conflict.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said attacks by both sides inside Iraq this month showed blatant disregard for its sovereignty and its people stood to suffer most from Washington and Tehran’s conflict.

Also on Friday, European foreign ministers gathered in Brussels to find ways to ease the precarious situation that has unfolded in the past week.

In Washington on Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to stop President Donald Trump from further military action against Iran.

But the region remained tense as Iranian military commanders threatened more attacks, fuelling worries that the apparent pause in hostilities could be short-lived.

The latest flare-up in the shadow war between the two long-time foes started with the U.S. killing of Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani, in an air strike next in Baghdad airport on Jan. 3.

Iran responded on Wednesday by firing missiles at U.S. forces in Iraq. In the aftermath, both sides backed off from intensifying the conflict.

But neigbouring Iraq looks set to bear the brunt of further violence as the main arena for the U.S.-Iranian military confrontation, its leaders caught in a bind as Washington and Tehran are also the Baghdad government’s main allies and vie for influence there.

In a message delivered through a representative speaking at Friday prayers in the holy city of Kerbala, Ayatollah Sistani said no foreign powers should be allowed to decide Iraq’s fate.

“The use of methods of domination by different sides which possess power and influence...will only entrench the crisis and prevent a solution,” the representative said.

“The latest dangerous aggressive acts, which are repeated violations of Iraqi sovereignty, are a part of the deteriorating situation” in the region, he said.

Sistani, who wields huge influence over public opinion in Iraq, only weighs in on politics during times of crisis and is seen as a voice of moderation.

“The people have suffered enough from wars...Iraq must govern itself and there must be no role for outsiders in its decision-making,” Sistani said.

Iraq is struggling to recover from decades of war, sanctions and sectarian conflict, including two U.S.-led invasions and the rise and fall of extremist Sunni militant groups al Qaeda and Islamic State.

However, at Friday prayers in Tehran, an Iranian cleric said U.S. interests across the world were now exposed to threat.

“This dominating regime has numerous military bases. From now on, having too many bases, especially in this region, will not act as an advantage for them,” Mohammad Javad Haj Aliakbari, mid-ranking cleric, told worshippers at a mosque.

CALLS TO LEAVE

Since Soleimani’s killing, Tehran has stepped up its calls for U.S. forces to leave Iraq, which like Iran is a mainly Shi’ite Muslim nation.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has said Iran’s retaliatory strikes were not enough and that ending the U.S. military presence in the region was the its main goal.

Analysts said Iran’s focus, for now, would likely be to put more pressure on Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government to press for a U.S. withdrawal and mobilising Tehran-backed militias in Iraq to harass U.S. forces.

The U.S. House of Representatives, which is Democratic-controlled, voted on Thursday to terminate Trump’s war powers to use U.S. armed forces against Iran without Congress’ consent. The measure now goes to the Senate, which is controlled by Trump’s Republican Party, where it faces an uphill battle.

A White House spokesman called the measure “ridiculous”.

Trump said on Thursday Soleimani was killed because he had planned to blow up a U.S. embassy.

“Soleimani was actively planning new attacks and he was looking very seriously at our embassies and not just the embassy in Baghdad, but we stopped him and we stopped him quickly and we stopped him cold,” Trump told a campaign rally in Ohio.

So far, the United States has provided only vague descriptions of the intelligence that drove its decision to kill Soleimani, which critics have called a reckless and inflammatory action.

Soleimani carved out a sphere of Iranian influence running through Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, challenging regional rival Saudi Arabia as well as the United States and Israel.

In Iran, he was a national hero whose funeral drew vast crowds of mourners but the West saw him as a dangerous and ruthless enemy.

Complicating the fraught situation, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. officials said they believed a Ukrainian passenger plane that crashed in Iran on Wednesday killing all 176 people on board was brought down by Iranian air defences by mistake hours after Iran launched its missile attacks. Iran denies it downed the plane.

PACT PULLOUT

The renewed hostilities followed months of ever-rising tension since Trump pulled the United States out of Iran’s nuclear pact with world powers in 2018 and reimposed sanctions that have driven down Tehran’s vital oil exports.

Trump said on Thursday it was time for them to replace the 2015 pact with a new deal. But Iran’s U.N. ambassador replied that Tehran could not trust any idea of dialogue when faced with the “economic terrorism” of sanctions.

Analysts say that in an election year, Trump would want to avoid getting into a drawn-out conflict. In turn, Iran will try to avert direct war with superior U.S. forces but can call on proxy militias across the region.

In Brussels, EU foreign ministers joined by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, were meeting on Friday to find ways to push the United States and Iran away from open conflict.

“Iran’s desire to prevent the crisis from escalating has bought us some time, it has the effect of cooling this down just a little,” a senior EU diplomat told Reuters. (Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein, John Davison and Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad, Babak Dehghanpisheh and Parisa Hafezi in Dubai; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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