Monday , December 11 2017

US, Qatar stage exercise – Row over Hajj

DOHA, Aug 22, (Agencies): Qatari and US paratroopers held a joint training exercise in crisis-hit Doha on Tuesday which American officials said reinforced “the enduring military-tomilitary” partnership between the two countries.

The “Friendship Jump” comes at a time of high political tension in the Gulf, where a boycott of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain has entered its third month.

More than 40 paratroopers took part in the routine exercise, jumping from a C-130 transport aircraft, according to a statement from the US Special Operations Command Control. The training “is indicative of the strong relationship between our two countries”, said Colonel David Keesy, senior defence official for the US Embassy in Qatar. “This is part of a multi-spectrum, training evolution that is indicative of the mil-to-mil relationships and partnership and cooperation between the US and Qatari militaries.”

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut all ties with Qatar on June 5 over accusations of state support for Islamist extremist groups and close ties to Shiite Iran. Qatar denies the allegations. The crisis has proved a diplomatic thorn in the side of the United States, which is an ally to all four Gulf nations.

There have been mixed messages from Washington, with President Donald Trump appearing to back the Saudis but with the State and Defence departments being more cautious. Washington has a huge military base in Qatar and a naval base in Bahrain.

Tuesday’s US-Qatari military exercise is the second since the onset of the Gulf crisis, following naval exercises in June. A row over access for Qataris to Islam’s annual Hajj pilgrimage is further poisoning relations between their country and Saudi Arabia and aggravating a wider diplomatic rift with other Arab powers.

Qatar has accused Saudi Arabia, which hosts and supervises the Hajj, of deliberately making it hard for its pilgrims to obtain permits to go to Makkah. Saudi Arabia says Qatar is seeking to politicise the ritual for diplomatic gains.

A deal last week to let some Qataris cross the desert border into Saudi Arabia appeared initially to signal an easing of tensions, but subsequently led to even more acrimonious exchanges. Many would-be Qatari pilgrims say they will not travel to the Hajj out of safety concerns, or because they fear becoming pawns in the political struggle. “We are tired of this. Of course we want to go to Makkah but who should we listen to? Politics has broken down,” said Ahmed al-Rumahi, 31, a student of Islamic studies at Qatar University. For Saudi Arabia, custodian of Islam’s holiest places, much is at stake.

The kingdom ventures its reputation on organising Hajj, a pillar of Islam which every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to is obliged to undertake at least once. Qatari officials say that only a handful of Qataris are expected to attend this year’s event, which runs from about Aug 30 to Sept 4, depending on sightings of the moon.

The Hajj dispute has added a new point of contention to the wider diplomatic standoff in the Gulf. In June, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) imposed sanctions on fellow US ally Qatar and cut all transport links with the country, accusing it of supporting Iran and backing Islamist terrorism — charges Doha denies.

The dispute has defied mediation attempts by the United States and Kuwait. After last week’s border crossing deal, which Riyadh said was brokered by a member of Qatar’s ruling family, Saudi television showed dozens of Qataris driving across the frontier in white SUVs.

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