ANKARA, (Reuters) – Influential Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr met Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan during a surprise visit to Ankara on Friday, government officials said.
“The political process is increasingly normalised in Iraq … He is here for political consultations with the Turkish authorities on these matters,” a foreign ministry official told Reuters.
Sadr, who entered Erdogan’s official residence in a black car with tinted windows, is rarely seen in public and was believed to have been in Iran before the visit.
Ties have been strained between Ankara and Baghdad over Kurdish guerrillas based in northern Iraq who stage attacks into Turkey.
In March, President Abdullah Gul was the first Turkish head of state to visit Iraq in 33 years in an effort to improve relations.
Diplomats and analysts say Turkey, like the United States, is concerned by Shi’ite Iran’s growing influence over Iraq.
Turkey has made it a foreign policy priority to improve ties with its neighbours and make efforts to ease tensions in the Middle East. Turkey has hosted indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria and helped negotiate a ceasefire in Gaza.
Anti-American Sadr has a huge following among Iraq’s Shi’ite poor and his allies won enough seats in the Jan. 31 elections for Iraq’s provincial councils to remain a political player. Shi’ites are the majority Muslim sect in Iraq. However, Sadr’s Mehdi army is less powerful than it was. Sadr ordered most of his militia to lay down arms and become more of a social organisation. He is expected to travel to Istanbul after his talks with Turkish officials in Ankara.