Pope Francis will begin his visit to Iraq today. The historic trip—the first-ever by a pontiff to the country—takes place
Pope Francis will begin his visit to Iraq today.
The historic trip—the first-ever by a pontiff to the country—takes place amid a resurgence of religious violence and a spike in COVID-19 infections. Francis will meet Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, one of the highest Shi’a religious authorities, in Najaf, southern Iraq. The country is deeply divided between nationalist Shi’a loyal to Sistani, pro-Iranian Shi’a, Sunni Muslims, and pro-independence Kurds. The Pope intends to promote dialogue and the restoration of trust between the disparate faith communities.
Obstructing progress, US-Iran tensions in Iraq pose a credible challenge to the success of the papal program. Washington has some 2,500 soldiers in Iraq, while Iran has the support of Hachd al-Chaabi, a powerful coalition of armed factions financed and armed by Tehran. While Iraq experienced relative calm with the announcement of a pro-Iran truce in the face of threats from the US, tensions have recently spiked over rocket attacks on US targets in Iraq and a US reprisal.
This visit could roil regional politics and revive the rivalry between Najaf and the Iranian city of Qom over representation of the Shi’a community. Expect Iran to continue its efforts to destabilise Iraq ahead of the Iraqi legislative elections of June 6 to keep its former rival in its sphere of influence.
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