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RIYADH UNDERSCORES INTER-GCC COORDINATION ON IRAN – US urges Gulf to ‘do more’ in Iraq

President Barack Obama and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman meet at Erga Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on April 20.
President Barack Obama and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman meet at Erga Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on April 20.

RIYADH, April 20, (Agencies): US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter pleaded Wednesday for greater Gulf financial and political involvement in Iraq, which is battling both Islamic State jihadists and an economic crisis. Carter made the comments after meeting in Riyadh with his counterparts from the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council. “I encourage our GCC partners to do more, not only militarily as the Saudis, as the UAE have been doing — and I really appreciate that — but also politically and economically,” Carter told reporters after the talks.

He said Sunni support for “multisectarian governance and reconstruction” will be critical to ensuring the defeat of IS, the Sunni extremist group which has seized large parts of Shiite-majority Iraq, and Syria. Shiite paramilitary forces dominated by Iran-backed militias have helped push back the jihadists. Iraqi Kurds, mostly Sunnis who have an autonomous region in the country’s north have received training to fight IS from a US-led coalition whose warplanes are bombing the jihadists in Iraq and Syria. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations are part of that coalition but Carter called on them to exert diplomatic support as well, by reopening embassies in Baghdad.

Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Iraq presented his credentials in January, reestablishing relations a quarter-century after they were cut following ex-president Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. The United States would like the oilrich Gulf States — although they themselves are facing falling revenues from collapsed crude prices — to help in Iraq’s reconstruction. This could be through contributions to the United Nations or even non-profit organisations, he said. The question of support for Iraq is expected to be on the agenda Thursday when Carter joins President Barack Obama at a GCC summit in Riyadh. They will gather in an atmosphere of tension with Gulf leaders offended by Obama’s perceived reluctance to get involved in the region’s problems, and in particular his tilt towards Iran, their Shiite- dominated regional rival.

The Sunni Gulf States are worried after the lifting this year of international sanctions against Tehran under an agreement with major powers to curb Iran’s nuclear programme. Riyadh and its neighbours fear the US-supported deal will only embolden Iran which they accuse of interference throughout the Middle East. From the US perspective, greater Gulf involvement with Baghdad will counter Iranian influence. “We say: ‘Do more to help the politics work out’”, a senior American defence official said. Before the Gulf states assist Baghdad they want guarantees over minority Sunni representation in parliament and their access to national financial resources, he said.

Iraq is confronting a serious economic crisis caused by low global oil prices and years of mismanagement and corruption. Both the US and the United Nations have warned that the crisis could distract from efforts to combat IS. Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, Second Deputy Premier and Minister of Defense, on Wednesday emphasized necessity of inter-GCC cooperation to face “external and regional challenges namely terrorism and Iranian intervention” in the Arab GCC countries.

The Deputy Crown Prince made the statement during a meeting between the GCC ministers of defense and the visiting US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, held in Al-Diriyah Palace, the official Saudi Press Agency said. SPA quoted Prince Mohammed as saying that the discussions between the two sides would deal with “means of facing these challenges jointly through the partnership that bonds the Arabian Gulf states with the United States of America. “It is a longtime partnership.” The Deputy Crown Prince called for serious action to face “these challenges.” Meanwhile, President Barack Obama opened a brief trip to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday with a one-on-one meeting with King Salman in Riyadh. The visit for an Arabian Gulf summit comes against the backdrop of increasingly strained US relations with the Saudis, who remain deeply opposed to his outreach to Iran and skeptical of his approach to Syria.

Under crystal chandeliers, the Saudi monarch greeted Obama in a grand foyer at Erga Palace, where the two walked slowly to a reception room as the small of incense wafted. The two offered polite smiles as they sat down side by side for pictures at the start of their two-hour private meeting.

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