RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — President Obama said Thursday that he is “concerned” about whether Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi can hold onto power, and he urged America’s Arab allies in the Persian Gulf to bolster Sunni support for the beleaguered Iraqi leader.
Obama’s comments came as he promised gulf leaders weapons and support to counter Iranian influence in the region, while simultaneously pushing them to be open to dialogue and diplomacy with their longtime rival.
Obama met with envoys from the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council — a bloc led by Sunni Muslim rulers stretching from Kuwait to Oman — in an effort to combat perceptions that the United States is pulling back from the region at a time of crisis.
Speaking to reporters about the predicament that Abadi, a Shiite, now faces, Obama said: “I’m concerned. I think Prime Minister Abadi has been a good partner for us.”
But he added that the current political divisions in Iraq are not strictly sectarian. “There’s actually significant dissension and disputes, even among the Shia power blocks,” Obama said. The Iraqis have “got a lot on their plate,” he said. “Now is not the time for government gridlock or bickering.”
Facing an economic crisis stemming from corruption, a collapse in oil prices and war against the Islamic State, Abadi has struggled for the past two months to install a new cabinet. His initial proposal of nonpartisan technocrats was rejected by powerful political blocs, including his own. Since then, as salaries have gone unpaid and key jobs unfilled, power struggles have riven the parliament, dividing sectarian and political groups vying for supremacy and fracturing them from within.
While Iraqis need to make decisions about the direction of their government for themselves, the president said, “we do think, however that it is vital for the health and stability of Iraq that the cabinet and the makeup of the government is finalized and stabilized.”
Both Obama and Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, who met with his Arab counterparts here Wednesday, pressed the gulf countries to support Abadi. But in an apparent attempt to maintain some leverage over the Iraqi situation, Obama said he had recommended that the Arab partners “wait to assess how the current government turmoil plays itself out over the next couple of weeks before we make final decisions about how useful particular offers of assistance will be.”
Asked about tensions in the relationship, and his description of the Arab allies as “free riders” in a recent interview with the Atlantic magazine, Obama said he thought “that a lot of the strain was always overblown.”
“At any point in time there are going to be differences in tactics,” the president said, adding the United States and its Arab partners are working to have “more consistent institutionalized communication at every level of government” to ease unintended friction in a region that remains “fraught” with political strife.
Obama sought to address concerns among gulf leaders over Iran’s resurgence as an oil exporter and its rapprochement with Western nations. At the core of his strategy is a two-part bet: that helping shore up the Arab allies’ defenses also will raise prospects for their diplomatic overtures with Tehran.
He said he wanted “to de-escalate and resolve regional conflicts” even as the allies continued “to have serious concerns about Iranian behavior” in the Middle East.
Last spring, Obama promised Saudi Arabia and the smaller Arab states new weapons to help defend against Iranian missiles, maritime attacks and cyberattacks. More recently, the United States has stepped up the interdiction of illicit Iranian arms shipments believed to be headed for Houthi rebels in Yemen.
But “what I’ve said to them is that we have to have a dual track,” he said of the gulf Arabs in response to reporters’ questions at the end of his visit. “We have to be effective in our defenses and hold Iran to account where it is acting in ways that are contrary to international rules and norms. But we also have to have the capacity to enter into a dialogue to reduce tensions and to identify ways in which the more reasonable forces inside of Iran can negotiate with the countries in the region, with its neighbors, so that we don’t see an escalation of proxy fights across the region.”
The meetings in Riyadh followed a similar gathering in May at Camp David in which the strains between the president and the Arab allies were obvious. King Salman of Saudi Arabia and several other gulf leaders skipped those talks.
In a formal statement with Salman at the conclusion of the latest summit, Obama emphasized that the two sides have much in common, especially when it comes to countering the rise of militants such as the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh.
“We remain united in our fight to destroy ISIL, or Daesh, which is a threat to all of us,” Obama said.
Salman called the summit “constructive and fruitful.”
But in addition to disagreements over Iran, serious fissures remain between the administration and gulf governments on how to pursue shared objectives. Saudi Arabia and other Western allies in the region back rebel factions opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but they have differed on the nature and recipients of their assistance and on the urgency of removing Assad from power. In Yemen, where a Saudi-led force has conducted airstrikes against rebel groups — which the Saudis say are backed by Iran — the administration has provided some assistance but has urged the Saudis to find a way to end the conflict.
The Gulf Cooperation Council includes Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates — nations that have some key U.S. military sites such as the 5th Fleet headquarters in Bahrain.
“That’s a very important reason why we believe that these regional conflicts that often have a sectarian tinge need to be de-escalated,” Rob Malley, a senior adviser to the president on the Middle East, told reporters last week.
Obama said talks on Syria included “discussions about what options are available to us should the current cessation of hostilities break down.”
“None of the options are good,” he said.
Earlier, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters that the United States is concerned “about reports about Russia moving materiel into Syria” and has seen a persistent uptick in violations of the partial cease-fire there by both the Syrian regime and Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.
“It has been my view consistently that we have to get a political solution inside of Syria and that all the external actors involved have to be committed to that as well as the actors inside of Syria,” Rhodes said. “And the problem with any plan B that does not involve a political settlement is that it means more fighting, potentially for years. And whoever comes out on top will be standing on top of a country that’s been devastated and that will then take years to rebuild.”
Eilperin reported from Washington. Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.