With fresh friction wearing on an old alliance, President Barack Obama pressed Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf nations on Wednesday to step up efforts to defeat the Islamic State group and help rebuild war-torn Iraq.
Obama huddled privately with Saudi King Salman at Erga Palace as Defense Secretary Ash Carter appealed to other Gulf nations for more economic and political support for Iraq, echoing themes Obama planned to emphasize personally in talks with Gulf leaders at a regional summit. In addition to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Oman and Qatar are participating.
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The president's visit came at a difficult time for such requests. U.S. relations with Gulf allies, particularly Saudi Arabia, are under new strains due to differences over Iran, the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, and Obama's public complaints that allies not carrying their weight.
Carter asked the Gulf countries to help with the reconstruction of the cities of Ramadi and Hit as well as Anbar province, areas that have been won back from IS militants but were left in near-shambles. He said helping the Iraqi people go home and rebuild their lives would lead to a more lasting victory and promote a more inclusive government.
"What we would like, and what we discussed today, is to do more," Carter said at Diriyah Palace.
A senior defense official said the defense chiefs had a robust discussion, but came to no solid agreements on the increased aid. Still, the Gulf nations appear to be willing to consider doing more, said the official, who briefed reporters but was not authorized to be quoted by name.
Before ramping up assistance, Sunni leaders have been waiting to see more political improvements in Baghdad, where a political crisis has complicated efforts to focus on IS, and for greater participation and aid for the Sunni population.
The U.S. has been unsatisfied with what the Gulf nations have been willing to do in the fight, both with their military forces and financial contributions. In recent comments to The Atlantic magazine, Obama described Gulf countries, among others, as "free riders" that show "an unwillingness to put any skin in the game" regarding their own regional security.
The Saudis in particular have bristled at Obama's suggestion that they "share the neighborhood" with Iran, which they see as their foe. Senior Obama administration officials said King Salman and his aides didn't raise that episode during the meeting, but that Obama had made clear he believes it's in the region's interests to lower tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Still, there were signs of a less-than-enthusiastic welcome for Obama as he arrived in Saudi Arabia.
Stepping off of Air Force One at King Khalid International Airport, Obama was greeted not by King Salman but by a lower-ranking royal, Prince Faisal bin Bandar Al Saud, the governor of Riyadh. Ahead of Obama's arrival, Saudi state television showed the king personally greeting senior officials from other Gulf nations arriving at the King Salman Air Base.
Mustafa Alani, a security analyst at the Gulf Research Center, said the move was unusual and intended to send a clear message that they have little faith in him.
"The Saudis had disagreements with previous presidents," Alani said. "Here you have deep distrust that the president won't deliver anything."
Obama arrived a day after telling CBS News that his administration was reviewing the release of a 28-page section of the congressional report on the Sept. 11 attacks that some believe implicate Saudi Arabia in the planning, a charge the kingdom denies. The attention in the U.S. on the withheld pages comes as Congress debates legislation that would allow the families to sue Saudi Arabia. The Obama administration says it opposes the bill, and officials said the issue didn't come up in Obama's meeting with King Salman.
Carter, addressing reporters in Riyadh, said Sunni support for a multi-sectarian government in Iraq will insure that the Islamic State group "stays defeated." Gulf Cooperation Council Secretary-General Abdullatif al-Zayani said Carter had conveyed a U.S. commitment to stand with the Gulf nations against Iranian threats, including weapons smuggling into countries like Yemen.
In their meeting, the defense ministers also reaffirmed ways that their militaries can collaborate, including in training, exercises and missions with their special operations and naval forces. They also discussed ways to counter threats from Iran — a high priority for the Gulf countries dismayed with the U.S. move to reduce sanctions on Tehran as part of last year's nuclear deal.