Saudi-Iraq council aimed at boosting strategic ties

Rex Tillerson said in Riyadh that the growing relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iraq was 'vital' to bolstering the collective security, cooperation in the fight against Islamic State and prosperity between the US and both countries.
At the first meeting of the Saudi-Iraqi Coordination Council in Riyadh yesterday were (from left at table) Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, Saudi Arabia's King Salman and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
At the first meeting of the Saudi-Iraqi Coordination Council in Riyadh yesterday were (from left at table) Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, Saudi Arabia's King Salman and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

It will lead to closer cooperation in fight against ISIS, says Tillerson

RIYADH • Top US diplomat Rex Tillerson pursued efforts to curb Iran's influence in talks with Gulf allies yesterday, but there was scant hope of a breakthrough in a quarrel between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

As well as talks with senior Saudi officials in Riyadh, including King Salman, Mr Tillerson attended a landmark meeting between Saudi Arabia and Iraq aimed at upgrading strategic ties.

The meeting appeared aimed at boosting Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia's clout in Shi'ite-majority Iraq, part of a wider regional battle for influence that extends from Syria to Yemen.

Mr Tillerson's visit comes just weeks after President Donald Trump refused to certify the Iran nuclear deal, leaving its fate to the US Congress, and laid out an aggressive new strategy against Teheran.

"The joint coordination council will not only lead to closer cooperation in the fight against Daesh, but will also help support the rehabilitation of facilities and infrastructure in the areas liberated," Mr Tillerson said at the first meeting of the Saudi-Iraqi Coordination Council, referring to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

He was expected to ask Saudi Arabia to provide more money for reconstruction in Iraq after United States-backed forces ousted ISIS from its key strongholds in the country.

Following years of tensions with Riyadh, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi hailed the meeting as an "important step towards enhancing relations", while King Salman warned of the dangers of "extremism, terrorism, as well as attempts to destabilise our countries".

At a press conference, Mr Tillerson demanded that Iranian "militias" leave Iraq. He said: "Certainly, Iranian militias that are in Iraq, now that the fighting against (ISIS) is coming to a close, those militias need to go home."

The relationship between Iraq and Iran has been revived as a political issue in the US, with Republican Senator Ted Cruz saying last week that Washington may have to re-evaluate its support for Baghdad if its government continues to "effectively act as a puppet of Iran".

Mr Tillerson also called on European countries to join a US-led sanctions regime against Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, saying that countries doing business with the Islamic republic's force do so at their own risk. "We are hoping that European companies, countries and others around the world will join the US as we put in place a sanctions structure to prohibit certain activities of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that foment instability... and create destruction in the region," he said.

The question of Iranian influence has also been at the heart of the diplomatic conflict between Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, on one side, and Qatar, with Mr Tillerson headed to Doha later in the day for talks on defusing the crisis between two key US allies.

Mr Tillerson made an unsuccessful attempt to resolve the dispute during a trip to the region in July.

Mr Trump, after initially appearing to support the effort to isolate Qatar, has called for mediation and recently predicted a rapid end to the crisis. But before he arrived in Riyadh on Saturday, Mr Tillerson indicated there had been little progress. "I do not have a lot of expectations for it being resolved anytime soon," he said in an interview. "There seems to be a real unwillingness on the part of some of the parties to want to engage."

Aside from the Gulf dispute and Iran, the conflict in Yemen and counter-terrorism were also expected to figure in Mr Tillerson's talks.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 23, 2017, with the headline 'Saudi-Iraq council aimed at boosting strategic ties'. Print Edition | Subscribe