Iraq’s populist cleric Muqtada Al Sadr has met with Iran’s top leaders during a visit to Tehran that marked the Shiite holy day of Ashura.
Mr Al Sadr’s visit came as a surprise after he voiced criticism against pro-Iranian paramilitary groups in Iraq.
Iraq’s political scene is currently divided, especially among the Shiite factions, and as Baghdad attempts to balance relations between its two main allies, Washington and Tehran.
Pictures released by Iran’s Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s office showed Mr Al Sadr with Iran’s top leader.
Others showed Mr Al Sadr sitting next to the commander of the elite Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Maj Gen Qasem Soleimani, the man who has overseen Iran’s campaign in Syria and Iraq.
Iran’s judiciary head Ebrahim Raisi also attended the ceremony, which commemorates the death of Prophet Mohammed’s grandson Hussein during the Battle of Karbala in 680.
Tehran has deep but complicated ties with Baghdad; it also has significant influence among its Shiite political groups and paramilitary forces known as Hashed Al Shaabi.
Iran’s influence increased in Iraq after the US-led invasion of 2003, especially after the rise of ISIS in 2014.
Tehran sent Mr Soleimani and his advisers to assist Iraq’s security forces in their battle against ISIS. He is also seen in Baghdad during critical periods
Mr Al Sadr emerged as the biggest winner in Iraq’s general election last May but has refused to align with the pro-Iran party to form a conclusive government.
Instead, Mr Al Sadr met with officials from Saudi Arabia such as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – heaping more controversy on his visit this week to Tehran.
The development comes as Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi expressed his condolences to the families who lost their loved ones in Tuesday’s stampede during a visit to Karbala on Wednesday.
“On behalf of the entire Iraqi government, we send our deepest condolences to the families of the victims who lost their lives and our sympathy and support to all those affected by yesterday’s tragedy,” the government said on Twitter.
Health minister, Alaa Al Alwan, said he is following up with governor of Karbala, Nassif Al Khattabi, on the conditions of those injured.
Mr Al Khattabi declared three days of mourning for the 31 pilgrims that were killed. At least 100 other people were injured in the incident, which occurred as tens of thousands of Shiite Muslims marked Ashura.
It was the deadliest stampede in the country’s recent history during Ashura commemorations.
“The minister has reassured the governor that the ministry will provide the necessary services and equipment to ensure a full and speedy recovery for those injured,” a ministry spokesperson told The National.
“The majority of those injured have left the hospital and nine remain in a critical condition,” the spokesperson said.