TEHRAN, Iran — Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said “enemies” were trying to drive a wedge between Tehran and Baghdad in a tweet on Monday following deadly unrest in neighboring Iraq.
“#Iran and #Iraq are two nations whose hearts & souls are tied together… Enemies seek to sow discord but they’ve failed & their conspiracy won’t be effective,” Khamenei was quoted as saying on his office’s Twitter account.
State news agency IRNA said the supreme leader was reacting to recent violence in Iraq.
More than 100 people have been killed in Iraq since clashes erupted last week between protesters and security forces, the majority of them demonstrators struck by bullets.
The Iraqi authorities have accused “saboteurs” and unidentified snipers of targeting the protesters.
The unrest is the most serious challenge facing Iraq two years after the victory against the Islamic State terror group. The chaos also comes at a critical time for the government, which has been caught in the middle of increasing US-Iran tensions in the region. Iraq is allied with both countries and hosts thousands of US troops, as well as powerful paramilitary forces allied with Iran.
Iran has urged its citizens planning to take part in a major Shiite pilgrimage in Iraq to delay their travel into the country over the violence.
Tehran has close but complicated ties with Baghdad, with significant influence among its Shiite political groups.
The two countries fought a bloody war from 1980 to 1988 and Iran’s influence in the country grew after the US-led invasion of Iraq toppled veteran dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The war against IS has given unprecedented clout to Iranian-backed militias known collectively as the Popular Mobilization Forces, which fought the extremist group alongside Iraq’s army and are now part of the country’s security forces. They have accumulated immense political and economic power, challenging the authority of the central government.
Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who came to power a year ago, promised to introduce change and fight corruption, but he has been unable to bring meaningful reform. He also been powerless to rein in the militias, and many Iraqis have grown frustrated with a government they see as increasingly subservient to Iran.
There are already indications that regional tension is at play. Some demonstrators in Baghdad have blamed Iranian-backed groups within the security forces for the violence. Media affiliated with the Iranian-backed groups have pointed toward the US and Saudi Arabia for the unrest.
In the first official statement from the government accounting for the violence, Interior Ministry spokesman Saad Maan said Sunday that 104 people had been killed in the six days of unrest, including eight members of the security forces, and more than 6,000 wounded. He said an investigation was under way to determine who was behind the most deadly day of violence, in Baghdad on Friday.
Iraq’s most senior Shiite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has urged the protesters and the security forces to end the violence while the country’s prime minister has called on the protesters to go home. Abdul-Mahdi also pledged to meet with the protesters wherever they are and without any armed forces, to hear their demands.