Iraq and Saudi Arabia, two countries where the United States has strong ties and significant investment, are not the closest of friends. But the Obama administration has long tried to bring them together on the basis of a shared concern over terrorism and an interest in Middle East stability.
The difficulty of that task was brought home again Wednesday when Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, visiting the United States, sharply criticized Saudi Arabia’s ongoing military operation in Yemen, saying it had no “logic” and expressing concern that it could help trigger a wider sectarian war in the region.
Asked in an interview with a small group of journalists whether President Obama, with whom he met with Tuesday, agreed with him that the Saudis had gone “too far” in airstrikes in Yemen, Abadi said he did not want to speak for the administration. But “I think that we agreed on this issue,” he said.
The Saudis quickly responded. Asked about Abadi’s remarks at a news conference to discuss the Yemen operation, Adel al-
Jubeir, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, said Iraqi officials should concern themselves with “what’s going on in their own country,” where he suggested that minorities were still struggling for “inclusion.”
For its part, the administration politely rebutted Abadi. Neither Obama nor Vice President Biden, in separate meetings with Abadi, had criticized Saudi actions in Yemen, National Security Council spokesman Alistair Baskey said in an e-mail. “We firmly support” the Saudi operation, he said, “which is why we have been providing . . . intelligence and logistical support” for Saudi airstrikes in Yemen.
The three-way exchange threatened to overshadow Abadi’s efforts, on his first official visit to this country, to enhance his image as the leader who can both defeat the Islamic State and bring inclusive governance to Iraq. It also threatened to dilute the Saudi narrative that its Yemen operation was taken only reluctantly, to restore stability in a neighboring state.
The contretemps also illustrated the challenges the Obama administration faces as its counterterrorism aims run up against the competing outlooks of U.S. allies in the region’s burning conflicts.
Lurking beneath both story lines is the issue of Iran. In Iraq, the U.S.-backed efforts of Abadi’s Shiite-led government to vanquish the Islamic State, a Sunni organization, have been aided by Shiite-led Iran. Saudi Arabia, a Sunni monarchy, charges that the Houthi tribes it is fighting in Yemen are part of Tehran’s efforts to exert hegemony over the entire region.
U.S. officials have said they believe that Iran has sent arms and provided advice to the Houthis but that Tehran is not the instigator in what so far is a largely domestic conflict.
The Obama administration has long been trying to bring comity to the Iraqi-Saudi relationship in the interests of regional calm and the fight against the common enemy of terrorism.
Saudi Arabia opposed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which ousted Sunni leader Saddam Hussein. The elections that followed led to a Shiite government under Abadi’s predecessor as prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. The Saudis charged that Maliki was too close to Iran, its longtime regional rival, and for years refused to open an embassy in post-invasion Baghdad.
When the Saudis did appoint an ambassador, in 2009, they based him in neighboring Jordan, arguing that Baghdad was too dangerous. In recent months, they have agreed to establish a full diplomatic representation in Iraq.
Critical remarks from Abadi, who the Obama administration believes can end the sectarian strife of the Maliki era, threatened to reopen old wounds.
“Iran’s support” for the Houthis, who this year forced President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to flee Yemen, “is a negative development” that will lead only to more conflict, said Jubeir, the Saudi ambassador to the United States.
“The Iranians, last time I checked, do not have a border with Yemen,” he said. “There is no reason for Iran to be involved in Yemen.”
But the view that the Houthis are a proxy for Iran, Abadi said, is “mistaken.”
“The problem with Yemen is within Yemen,” the Iraqi prime minister said. “And here comes Saudi Arabia, intervenes and bombing in Yemen and trying to destroy the capability of Yemen. . . . We don’t know what the Saudis want to do after this. To build a region of power where they will intervene in any place they want? Is Iraq within their radar?”
Asked whether Obama shared his concerns, Abadi said that he did.
In a subsequent e-mail, Iraq’s ambassador to the United States, Lukman Faily, clarified that Abadi “clearly stated that he was not speaking for the views of the United States.”
“The context for [his] remarks was concern about any escalation throughout the region and risks that such escalation could pose to Iraq’s own national security interests,” Faily said.
“Regarding Yemen, it is the position of Iraq that the conflict should end as soon as possible, and that the mechanism for ending the conflict should be a political solution endorsed by the people of Yemen.”
On that, all three governments say they agree.
Baskey, the NSC spokesman, said that in their meetings with Abadi, “the president and vice president conveyed the view, shared widely both in the region and beyond . . . that this not escalate into a broader conflict and that ultimately Yemen’s conflict can only be settled through a political negotiation involving all parties.”
Jubeir said that Saudi Arabia “has no ambition beyond its borders . . . other than security and stability” in Yemen.
The Saudi government, he said, has long invited the Houthis to “join the political process” there — an invitation, he added, that still stands and is the goal of Saudi military operations. “We seek nothing but good for the Yemenis and for the Houthis,” he said.
Jubeir said that the operation was “proceeding beyond its goals” and that his government was “beginning to see cracks” within the military structures of the Houthis and their allies, military forces loyal to Hadi’s predecessor as president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh.
“We are now looking at the political process,” he said, and “hoping that the various Yemeni factions will come together” under an initiative authored by the regional Gulf Cooperation Council and endorsed by the U.N. Security Council.
In the meantime, he said, the Houthis “have no choice but to give up their quest to take over Yemen, because they will fail. . . . We expect that, in the end, wisdom will prevail and they will join the political process.”
Saudi King Salman, Jubeir said, has “made very clear that this operation will continue until the objective is achieved. . . . There can be no half measures, and there will be no half measures.”