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Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr and commander of Iran’s Quds Force Major General Qassem Sulaimani in Tehran. Image Credit: AP

Tehran: Powerful Iraqi cleric Moqtada Sadr joined Iran’s supreme leader during a rare visit to Tehran to mark the Shiite holy day of Ashura, state media reported Wednesday.

The office of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued pictures of Sadr flanked by Khamenei on one side, and the commander of the elite Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Major General Qasem Soleimani, on the other.

Sadr is a populist cleric, political figure and former militia leader whose bloc emerged as the biggest in the Iraqi parliament after May 2018 elections.

But he refused to align with the pro-Iran camp to form a government, visited Tehran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia and has criticised pro-Iran paramilitary groups in Iraq,

Some observers suspect Sadr had been “summoned” to Tehran after statements challenging Iran and its Iraqi allies in the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force.

The Iraqi cleric recently launched a Twitter campaign against the more hardline elements of the Hashed and even took aim at the Iraqi government, saying Iraq was becoming a “rogue” state.

Sadr’s surprise visit comes at a time of deep political divisions among Iraq’s Shiite factions, and as Baghdad tries to walk a tightrope between its two main allies, Tehran and Washington.

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 Iraq grew after the US-led invasion of Iraq toppled veteran dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

In 2014, Iran sent Soleimani and “military advisers” to Iraq to help it in the fight against Daesh and Soleimani continues to play a key role as a powerbroker in Iraq during times of turbulence.