Report

In Slap at Riyadh, Iraqi Leader Puts U.S. on the Spot Over Yemen

The White House denies Haider al-Abadi's claim that President Obama believes Saudi Arabia has improperly intervened -- with U.S. support -- in Yemen.

President Obama meets with Iraqi PM Abadi at the White House
WASHINGTON - APRIL 14: U.S. President Barack Obama (R) shakes hands with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi speaks after a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office of the White House April 14, 2015 in Washington, DC. The two reportedly talked about supporting the fight against ISIS, a strategic partnership and relaltions in commercial and cultural interests. (Photo by Mike Theiler -Pool/Getty Images)

The Obama administration is caught between two allies over the rising war in Yemen — widely viewed as the Middle East’s newest sectarian conflict — as Iraq’s premier accused Saudi Arabia of embarking on a regional power grab with its military strikes against Houthi rebels.

In comments to reporters Wednesday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Riyadh is improperly interfering in Yemen, where it is bombing Shiite rebels who have pushed the Sunni government in Sanaa from power.

Abadi also said the Obama administration agrees with his view — even though the United States is supplying the Saudi kingdom and other Gulf nations with bombs, intelligence, refueling, and search-and-rescue capabilities for the assault in Yemen.

The White House quickly denied that President Barack Obama criticized the Saudi-led campaign during a Tuesday meeting with Abadi. And the Saudi ambassador to the United States said Riyadh has no interest in meddling in other nations — and that the Iraqi leader would do well to focus on his own country’s sectarian woes.

Abadi’s comments largely mirror Tehran’s take on the unrest in Yemen, which is widely seen as a proxy war between the Middle East’s two powers: Shiite Iran and Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia. They may surprise U.S. officials who supported Abadi’s rise to power over former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was forced to step down last summer as Sunni suspicion over his allegiance to Iran fueled the Islamic State, which now controls much of Iraq’s northern and western territories.

“The dangerous thing is, we don’t know what the Saudis want to do after this,” Abadi told Foreign Policy and a small group of reporters during a 38-minute morning meeting at the Blair House, across the street from the White House. “Is that to build a regional power where they will intervene in any place they want? Is Iraq within their radar? That is very, very dangerous.

“The idea that you intervene in another state and provoked [sic] just for regional ambition is wrong,” said Abadi, who was speaking in English.

He said the issue of Yemen was raised in meetings with Obama administration officials, although he was not specific about with whom. Abadi met Tuesday with Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Secretary of State John Kerry.

Specifically asked if Obama indicated that he agrees with Abadi’s concerns about Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen, the Iraqi prime minister said: “Yes, the administration, they share my concerns. They share my vision as well.”

In his own meeting with a small group of reporters Wednesday morning, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, flatly rejected Abadi’s comments, insisting that “there is no logic to those remarks, Saudi Arabia has no ambitions beyond its borders, we have no ambitions territorially or otherwise in Yemen.”

Jubeir also said there’s been no indication — to Riyadh at least — that the Obama administration no longer backs the mission. “Our friends in the U.S. have been very supportive of us, in terms of intelligence and logistics and of that we’re very appreciative,” he said. “But I have not had any U.S. official tell me that the operation is not proceeding well, and I have not had any U.S. official indicate to me or give me the sense that Saudi Arabia has any issues beyond its borders.”

Defense Department officials have confirmed that American forces are flying at least one aerial refueling mission daily to fuel Saudi and coalition fighter jets on Yemen bombing runs. The only condition that Washington has placed on the flights is that U.S. aircraft will not fly over Yemeni airspace.

Jubeir, showing a flash of annoyance, also said he doesn’t know why Abadi believes the Obama administration does not support the Saudi mission. Regardless, he said, “Iraq should really focus more on problems in its own country” — namely, by giving Sunnis and ethnic Kurds more power in the political process.

The Saudi-led offensive, launched last month, also is backed by Sunni-dominated Gulf states to halt the Houthis’ advance and restore President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to power. Iran is believed to have provided some, if limited, support to the Houthi rebels who have seized control of the capital Sanaa and forced Hadi in February to flee to the port city of Aden.

But Abadi, a Shiite, downplayed Iran’s support to the Houthis. “Yemen was not an Iranian proxy at all,” Abadi said.

On that point, the Saudi ambassador agreed with the Iraqi prime minister. Jubeir resisted calling the Sunni-led military operations part of a proxy war, saying instead that Saudi Arabia is merely responding to a request for help from Hadi’s government. “I would describe them as a war of necessity,” Jubeir said.

But he didn’t back down from Riyadh’s insistence that Iran has long been a supporter of the Houthi rebels, including by sending weapons, troops, and equipment to Yemen. “There is no reason for Iran to be in Yemen,” Jubeir said. “We know that Iran has supplied Houthis weapons in the past.”

Told of Abadi’s comments Wednesday, White House National Security Council spokesman Alistair Baskey said Obama “did not criticize” the Saudi and Gulf Cooperation Council mission in Yemen during his discussion with the Iraqi premier.

Baskey said administration officials “firmly support” the military campaign to defend Saudi Arabia’s southern border, which has been attacked in some places by Houthi rebels, and to return the “legitimate Yemeni government” to power.

Obama and Biden “conveyed the view, shared widely both in the region and beyond and reflected in the newly adopted UNSCR, 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,” Baskey said.

He was referring to a United Nations Security Council resolution, approved Tuesday, that bans the sale of arms to Houthis in Yemen.

Abadi said the battle in Yemen could create an opening for the Islamic State, which feeds on Sunni tensions with Shiites, whom they consider apostates. The Islamic State is also competing with al Qaeda, which on Wednesday claimed responsibility for killing nearly 60 Houthis in a suicide bombing in Yemen’s southern Abyan province, according to SITE Intelligence, which monitors jihadi online messages.

The bombing was carried out by al Qaeda’s branch in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, which U.S. officials believe poses the terror network’s highest threat against the United States. For years, the United States carried out deadly drone strikes against AQAP militants in Yemen, and likely will continue to do so even though American military forces and diplomats have been evacuated from the country following the February closing of the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa.

Iraq depends on the United States and Iran for help to defeat the Islamic State, which is also known by its Arabic name, Daesh. That puts Abadi in what he acknowledged is an uncomfortable position as the Yemen unrest continues.

“By all honesty, because the U.S. is our ally in this war against Daesh, we felt very uneasy if the U.S. was supporting this war of Yemen,” Abadi said.

“Because, can you work both sides? Here we are with Iraq against Daesh; there against Yemen. And what it does to Daesh; what it does to the other conflict?”

This story has been updated with Jubeir’s comments. 

Mike Theiler -Pool/Getty Images

Lara Jakes is the deputy managing editor of news for Foreign Policy magazine and a former war correspondent, Baghdad bureau chief and award-winning senior national security and diplomatic writer for The Associated Press. She's a 1995 graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism and lives in Alexandria, Va., with her husband. @larajakesFP

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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