US Defence Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Baghdad yesterday for talks with Iraqi leaders and to see American troops, who ended combat operations in August ahead of a scheduled withdrawal by the end of this year.
He arrived on an unannounced visit after a short stop in Saudi Arabia where he held talks with the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, saying Iran and regional developments had figured in discussions.
During his two-night stay in Baghdad, Gates will meet Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki and President Jalal Talabani, according to officials travelling with him.
They said he would also travel to northern Iraq for talks with Massud Barzani, president of the autonomous Kurdish region.
In his meetings, the Pentagon chief will convey “a common message of support for them to complete the government formation process, particularly to get security ministries dealt with,” a senior US defence official said.
More than a year after an indecisive general election, Iraq still has no defence, interior or national security ministers, even though Maliki stitched together a deal to form a national unity government in December.
Robert Gates held talks in Riyadh yesterday with Saudi King, with both sides concerned by Iranian intentions in the region and spiralling unrest in Yemen.
“We talked about developments all over the region, obviously talked about Iran,” Gates said following the meeting.
“We talked about how to prevent disruptive actions and extremist organisations trying to take advantages of the turbulences in the region,” he added.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states have traded accusations with Iran of meddling and interference, especially over the tiny Sunni-ruled, Shia-majority kingdom of Bahrain that lies to Saudi Arabia’s east, and is a key US ally and home to the US Fifth Fleet. “We already have evidence that the Iranians are trying to exploit the situation in Bahrain and we also have evidence that they’re talking about what they can do to create problems elsewhere,” Gates said.
Saudi Arabia led a joint Gulf force that deployed there last month, enabling Bahraini authorities to quell Shia-led protests calling for democratic reforms.
On Sunday, foreign ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), of which Saudi Arabia is a leading member, accused Iran of interference in the affairs of Bahrain and Kuwait in a campaign to destabilise the region. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad responded by saying that the United States and its allies pressured the Gulf Arab states to make the accusations against Iran, and demanded Saudi forces leave Bahrain.
The meeting was Gates’ first with King Abdullah since the monarch returned home in February after months of treatment abroad for a back ailment, and came amid mounting international anger over bloodshed in the kingdom’s southern neighbour Yemen and pressure on its president to stand down.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a close US and Saudi ally, has faced months of protests calling for his departure, in which around 125 people have been killed. Despite Saleh being a key US partner in its fight against Al Qaeda, the White House on Tuesday issued an unusually personal warning to him about violence against Yemeni protesters.
“The Yemeni people have a right to demonstrate peacefully, and we remind President Ali Abdullah Saleh of his responsibility to ensure the safety and security of Yemenis who are exercising their universal right to engage in political expression,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
The GCC is seeking to mediate between the Yemeni government and the opposition in a bid to find a way out of the country’s political impasse. Saleh yesterday welcomed the mediation offer, according to a statement on Saba state news agency, which said he “affirmed the necessity of a serious and fruitful dialogue to overcome the current crisis”.
An article on the defence department’s website quoted Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell as saying that “discussion with the king about the US-Saudi military-to-military relationship will center on progress in finalising a recent $ 60bn arms sale agreement.” Agencies