BAGHDAD - Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric told Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday that Iraqi sovereignty must be respected and weapons kept in state hands, a veiled reference to increasingly 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 U.S. sanctions meant to isolate and weaken Tehran.