Reuters International

Fighters from the Iraqi Shi'ite Badr Organization stand near a tunnel built by Islamic State fighters on the outskirts of Falluja, Iraq, May 28, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

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By Saif Hameed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Sunni politicians in Iraq condemned on Saturday a visit by Iranian General Qassem Soleimani to Shi'ite paramilitary forces fighting alongside the Iraqi army to drive Islamic State militants out of the Sunni city of Falluja.

Three lawmakers from the province of Anbar told Reuters the visit by Iran's al-Quds brigade commander could fuel sectarian tension and cast doubt on Baghdad's assertions that the offensive is an Iraqi-led effort to defeat Islamic State, and not to settle scores with the Sunnis.

Falluja, which lies about 50 kilometers (32 miles) west of Baghdad, is a bastion of the insurgency that fought the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the Shi'ite-led authorities that replaced former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, a Sunni.

In recent days, Iranian media published pictures of what they said was a visit by Soleimani to Falluja and a meeting he held with the leaders of the Iraqi coalition of Shi'ite militias known as Popular Mobilization, or Hashid Shaabi.

It is the second time Soleimani has appeared in Iraqi conflict zones. About a year ago, witnesses said he was present when Popular Mobilization fighters ousted Islamic State militants from cities north of the capital.

An Iraqi government spokesman did not confirm Soleimani's visit and stressed that Iranian advisors are present in Iraq in order to assist in the war on Islamic State (IS) in the same capacity as those of the U.S.-led anti-IS coalition.

Member of parliament (MP) Hamid al-Mutlaq rejected that, however.

"We are Iraqis and not Iranians," he said. "Would Turkish or Saudi advisers be welcomed to assist in the battle?" he added, drawing a parallel between the three regional powers bordering Iraq -- mainly-Sunni Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and Shi'ite Iran.

"Soleimani's presence is suspicious and a cause for concern; he is absolutely not welcome in the area," said Falluja parliamentarian Salim Muttar al-Issawi.

"I believe that the presence of such an official from the (Iranian) Revolutionary Guard could have sectarian implications," said another MP from the city, Liqaa Wardi.

Falluja was the first city captured by Islamic State in Iraq in January 2014, and is the second-largest still held by the militants after Mosul, their de-facto capital.

The Association of Muslim Scholars of Iraq, a hardline political organization formed after Saddam's ouster to represent Sunnis, rejected the participation of the Shi'ite militias in the fighting in Falluja.

"The militias ... didn't come to liberate areas, as they claim, but to carry out their sectarian goals with direct guidance from Iran," it said in a statement on Friday.

Meanwhile, rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia traded accusations over Soleimani's role in Iraq.

"The presence of Iran's military advisers in Iraq under the command of General Qassem Soleimani is at the request of the country's legitimate government in order to fight terrorists," an Iranian foreign ministry spokesman said, according to the Fars news agency.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir was quoted as telling Russia's RT channel Soleimani's presence in Iraq was "very negative."

(Reporting by Saif Hameed; Writing by Maher Chmaytelli; Editing by Helen Popper)

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