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Tillerson to Visit Middle East         10/21 11:23

   DOHA, Qatar (AP) -- As U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visits the 
Middle East this weekend, he'll hope to achieve something that has eluded top 
American diplomats for a generation: sealing a new alliance between Saudi 
Arabia and Iraq that would shut the doors of the Arab world to neighboring Iran.

   While the United States strives to heal the rift between the Gulf Arab 
states and Qatar, and resolve civil wars in Yemen and Syria, Tillerson is the 
Trump administration's point man on an even more ambitious and perhaps even 
less likely geopolitical gambit.

   U.S. officials see a new axis that unites Riyadh and Baghdad as central to 
countering Iran's growing influence from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean 
Sea, particularly as the Iraqi government struggles to rebuild recently 
liberated Islamic State strongholds and confronts a newly assertive Kurdish 
independence movement.

   History, religion and lots of politics stand in Tillerson's way. He arrived 
in Riyadh on Saturday and planned to visit Qatar on Monday.

   The effort to wean Iraq from Iran and bond it to Saudi Arabia isn't new, but 
U.S. officials are optimistically pointing to a surer footing they believe 
they've seen in recent months. They're hoping to push the improved relations 
into a more advanced phase Sunday when Tillerson participates in the inaugural 
meeting of the Saudi Arabia-Iraq Coordination Committee in Riyadh.

   Tillerson will seek Saudi financial generosity and political support for 
Iraq, its embattled northern neighbor. Two U.S. officials said Tillerson hopes 
the oil-rich Saudis will contribute to the massive reconstruction projects 
needed to restore pre-IS life in Iraqi cities such as Mosul and lend their 
backing to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. He is treading delicately 
among a host of powerful countries on Iraq's borders which are increasingly 
trying to shape the future of the ethnically and religiously divided nation.

   The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't 
authorized to publicly preview Tillerson's plans.

   Shiite-majority Iraq and Sunni-led Saudi Arabia, estranged for decades after 
Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, have tried in recent years to bridge 
their differences.

   Nevertheless, the relationship is still plagued by suspicion.

   Saudi Arabia reopened its embassy in Baghdad in 2015 after a 
quarter-century, and earlier this year unblocked long-closed border crossings. 
But the emergence of arch-Saudi rival Iran as a power player in Iraq continues 
to gnaw at Riyadh and Washington.

   Iran's reported intervention in Iraq's semi-autonomous northern Kurdish 
region, following last month's much criticized vote for independence in a 
referendum, has deepened the unease.

   President Donald Trump wants to see "a stable Iraq, but a stable Iraq that 
is not aligned with Iran," H.R. McMaster, his national security adviser, said 
this past week. He suggested Saudi Arabia could play a pivotal role.

   The U.S. view is that the alternative may mean more conflict in Iraq, which 
endured years of insurgency after the U.S.-led 2003 invasion and ethnic warfare 
when the Islamic State group rampaged across the country in 2014.

   "Iran is very good at pitting communities against each other," McMaster said 
Thursday at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "This is something they 
share with groups like ISIS, with al-Qaida. They pit communities against each 
other because they use tribal and ethnic and sectarian conflicts to gain 
influence by portraying themselves as a patron or protector of one of the 
parties in the conflict and then they use that invitation to come in and to 
help to advance their agenda and, in Iran's case, I think is a hegemonic 
design."

   Trump and his national security team have framed much of the Middle East 
security agenda around counteracting Iran, which they see as a malign influence 
that poses an existential threat to Israel and other American allies and 
partners in the region. They also accuse Iran of menacing the United States and 
its interests at home and elsewhere in the world.

   Shortly after taking office, Tillerson identified improving Saudi-Iraqi ties 
as a priority in the administration's broader policy to confront and contain 
Iran. Officials say he has devoted himself to the effort.

   On his second official trip abroad, Tillerson in February canceled a planned 
"meet and greet" with staffers at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City to focus on 
the matter, according to one of the U.S. officials.

   Tillerson's decision to skip that gathering was widely criticized at the 
time as a sign of disengagement with his employees, but the official said 
Tillerson adjusted plans to speak by secure telephone to Saudi Foreign Minister 
Adel al-Jubeir on the Iraq rapprochement.

   Tillerson, according to the official, implored al-Jubeir to visit Baghdad as 
a sign of Saudi goodwill and commitment to the effort to defeat IS, which then 
still held about half of Mosul.

   Al-Jubeir agreed. Two days later, he made a surprise trip to the Iraqi 
capital. He was the first Saudi foreign minister to do so in 27 years.


(KA)

 
 
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