Iran's Rouhani meets Iraq's top Shiite cleric

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani heads the religious establishment of Najaf, a city in Iraq that is holy to all Shiite Muslims.

NAJAF - Iraq's top Shiite cleric told Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday that Iraqi sovereignty must be respected and weapons kept in state hands, a veiled reference to influential Iran-backed militias.

It was the first meeting between an Iranian president and the 88-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who rarely weighs in on politics but exerts wide influence over Iraqi public opinion.

Sistani welcomed "any steps to strengthen Iraq's relations with its neighbours ... based on respect for the sovereignty of the countries and no interference in domestic affairs," a statement from his office said.

"The most important challenges facing Iraq are fighting corruption, improving services and keeping weapons in the hands of the state and its security services," it added.

The meeting came on the third day of a visit by Rouhani to Iraq which aimed to project Iran's political and economic dominance in Baghdad and expand commercial ties to help offset renewed US sanctions meant to isolate and weaken Tehran.

Iran and Iraq, both majority Shiite Muslim countries, signed several preliminary trade accords on Monday, Iraqi officials said, including deals on oil, health and a railway linking the southern Iraqi oil city of Basra and an Iranian border town.

Sistani's comments will chime with the concerns of many Iraqis that powerful Shiite militias, which are increasing their military and political influence after the defeat of Sunni Muslim extremist group ISIS, remain subservient to their Iranian patrons.

Sistani famously called Iraqis to arms against the Islamic State group in 2014, giving rise to the Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitary alliance, which includes Iran-backed Shiite groups.

Iran and Iraq fought a devastating eight-year war in the 1980s but their relations shifted drastically with the American-led overthrow of Sunni Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Iran, which like its neighbour has a mainly Shiite population, is now one of oil-rich Iraq's main trading partners and has close ties to many of its political actors.

Dozens of mainly Iran-backed paramilitary groups which played a key role in defeating ISIS in 2017 were brought formally into the security forces last year. Critics say they have also begun to control parts of the economy and to encroach in politics.

Shiite-majority Iraq is walking a fine line to maintain good relations with Iran and its other key ally, the United States, an arch-foe of Iran.

Both have played a major role in the battle against IS jihadists.

Sistani, a spiritual leader to most of Iraq's Shiites and some in Iran, heads the religious establishment of Najaf, a Shiite holy city in Iraq that rivals Iran's Qom.

In 2013, the octogenarian leader refused to meet then-president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Rouhani, who is on his first trip to Iraq since becoming president in 2013, hailed his country's "special" ties with its neighbour, saying they could not be prepared to relations "with an aggressor country like America".

Iran is striving to shore up control of a corridor of territory from Tehran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon where it holds sway through allies including those militias.