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FILE PHOTO - Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr speaks during a media conference with Iraqi Defense Minister Arfan al-Hayali and Iraq's Interior Minister Qasim al-Araji (not pictured) in Najaf, Iraq May 3, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani(reuters_tickers)
By Maher Chmaytelli
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The United Arab Emirates signalled its desire to strengthen ties with Iraq during weekend talks with influential Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr as part of efforts by Sunni nations of the Middle East to halt Iran's growing regional influence.
Sadr met Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy commander of the UAE armed forces on Sunday in Abu Dhabi, according to a senior aide of the cleric.
Sadr also discussed ways of improving understanding between the Sunni and Shi'ite branches of Islam, at a meeting on Monday with a prominent Sunni cleric in Abu Dhabi.
The UAE is among Sunni nations which feel threatened by Iran's increased power in the region, often projected through allied Shi'ite groups in Iraq and Lebanon.
"The two sides emphasized the importance to act in true Islamic spirit and reject violence and extremist thought," Sadr's office in Baghdad said in a statement on his website on Monday, reporting on his meeting with Emirati cleric Ahmed al-Kubaisi.
Closer ties with Sadr, who commands a large following among the urban poor of Baghdad and southern Iraq, would help Sunni states loosen Tehran's grip over Iraq's Shi'ite community and contain its influence.
The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain severed relations with Qatar on June 5, accusing the major gas-exporting Gulf state of financing terrorism, meddling in the affairs of Arab countries and cozying up to their arch-rival Iran.
Sadr is one of few Iraqi Shi'ite leaders to keep some distance from Iran. In April, he became the first Iraqi Shi'ite leader to call on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, marking his difference with Iran and Iranian-backed Iraqi militias backing the Syrian government.
"Experience has taught us to always call for what brings Arabs and Muslims together, and to reject the advocates of division," the Abu Dhabi crown prince told Sadr, according to report on the Emirati state-run news agency WAM.
The Iraqi cleric's trip to Abu Dhabi comes two weeks after a visit to Saudi Arabia, where he met crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman..
Sadr's office said his meeting with Mohammed bin Salman at the end of July resulted in an agreement to study possible investments in Shi'ite regions of southern Iraq.
The Saudis will consider the possibility of opening a consulate in Iraq's holy Shi'ite city of Najaf, it said.
Sadr also announced a Saudi decision to donate $10 million to help Iraqis displaced by the war on Islamic State in Iraq, to be paid to the Iraqi government.
Baghdad and Riyadh had announced in June they would set up a coordination council to upgrade ties, as part of an attempt to heal troubled relations between the Arab neighbours.
Saudi Arabia reopened its embassy in Baghdad in 2015 following a 25-year break, and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir made a rare visit to Baghdad in February.
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad; Editing by Richard Balmforth)