In a sign of the difficult diplomacy and conflicting alliances the Obama administration is trying to manage in the Middle East, the Saudi ambassador and the Iraqi prime minister traded barbs in Washington on Wednesday over Riyadh’s campaign against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen.
A day after meeting with President Obama, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi slammed the U.S.-supported campaign led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt in Yemen, saying it has “no logic” and warning it could explode into a regional sectarian war between Iran-backed Shiites and Sunni factions aligned with the Saudis.
Mr. al-Abadi, who is Shiite, told reporters that leaders in Baghdad are worried about what the Saudis intend to do next. “Is that to build a regional power, where they will intervene in any place they want? Is Iraq within their radar?” he asked rhetorically.
“That is very, very dangerous,” he said, according to Foreign Policy.
Shortly afterward, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington — holding his own press conference Wednesday to tout successes of the three-week-old campaign in Yemen — shot back that it was Mr. al-Abadi’s claims that had “no logic.”
“He is entitled to expressing his opinion. But I disagree with him completely,” said Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir. “Saudi Arabia has no ambitions beyond its borders. We have no ambitions territorially or otherwise in Yemen.”
“The Iraqis,” he said, “should really focus on the problems that are in their own country.”
The exchange underscored the challenges facing Mr. Obama’s policies in the region.
While administration officials have tried to unite Sunni and Shiite regional forces in a sustained fight against extremists, the approach is complicated by the simultaneous pursuit of a nuclear detente with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s great rival in the region.
Israel is known to be the most outspoken critic of the prospective nuclear deal, but most of the region’s Sunni Arab powers are also deeply wary of it.
The Obama administration is providing weapons and intelligence support for the Saudi fight against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen — a campaign that has also drawn support from nearly all of the Mideast’s Sunni Arab regimes.
At the same time, the administration is backing the Iran-friendly al-Abadi government in Baghdad and is believed to be tacitly coordinating with Tehran in the fight against the Sunni extremist Islamic State group in Iraq.
In his remarks Wednesday, Iraq’s prime minister appeared to agree with critics who say the U.S. is trying to play both sides of the fence.
“Can you work both sides?” asked Mr. al-Abadi, who suggested that the Obama administration is desperate to find a political solution to the crisis in Yemen, but is acquiescing to Saudi pressure to wage war against the Houthis.
Mr. al-Jubeir said Saudi Arabia wants a political solution in Yemen, but only after the Houthis rebels fully demilitarize, withdraw from the nation’s capital and agree to engage in peaceful negotiation toward an interim government that would hold democratic elections.
“There can be no half-measures,” the ambassador said.
Mr. al-Jubeir noted the U.N. Security Council imposed an arms embargo on the Houthi rebels this week. He also claimed airstrikes from some 120 sorties flown by a coalition of Arab partners so far have “degraded and destroyed” much of rebels’ military equipment.
In a sign the Yemen air campaign could escalate into a ground war soon, Egypt announced it was discussing with Riyadh a large-scale, joint military training maneuver with other Persian Gulf states.
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