Only last week Saudi Arabia reopened its embassy in Baghdad, after a 25 year absence that began around the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and continued through the US occupation. Days later, they executed top Shi’ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr.
This has put the Shi’ite-dominated Abadi government in a tough spot, as they face growing calls from within to expel the Saudis, and very vocal fury from the public, and Shi’ite militia leaders, who see the move as a practical declaration of a sectarian war.
Which would be a problem anyhow, but is even moreso since the Iraqi government is in the middle of a sectarian war which has led to ISIS taking much of Iraq’s Sunni territory. ISIS didn’t move in out of the blue, however, as sectarian violence back and forth led to mass protests and fighting that provided ISIS an opportunity to recruit and set up shop in Sunni areas.
As the Abadi government desperately tries to recover territory from ISIS, rising sectarian tensions are always threatening to reverse those gains. Already there have been reports of attacks on Sunni mosques, and despite efforts to blame ISIS, there is a sense that this could be the start of a new round of Shi’ite attacks, which inevitably drives the nation’s Sunnis to seek protection from groups like ISIS.
While Abadi is inevitably facing calls to just cut ties with the Saudis and get closer to the Shi’ite world in response to Nimr’s execution, the real risk is not international for him, but domestic, and is fueling the sense that Sunni Arab parts of Iraq are never going to be a proper part of the nation again.