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Tuesday April 7th, 2020 1:44PM

Arab leaders meet in Mecca to unify ranks amid Iran tensions

By The Associated Press
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MECCA, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Arab heads of state gathered Thursday evening for the start of a trio of high-level summits in Islam's holiest city of Mecca as Saudi Arabia attempts to present a unified regional stance in response to a spike in tensions with its top rival, Iran.

Saudi Arabia hastily called for the meetings after attacks on Saudi oil targets blamed on Iran. That King Salman could quickly bring regional leaders and heads of state to Mecca so rapidly reflects the kingdom's weight in the region and its desire to project a unified position on Iran.

Upon their arrival at the airport in Saudi Arabia, each leader was shown Yemeni rebel military items, such as a destroyed drone, missiles and mortar shells used in the conflict with the Saudis. The leaders were given a brief explanation of the weapons on display by Col. Turki al-Maliki, spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition at war in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia accuses Tehran of helping arm the rebel Houthis and being behind a Houthi drone attack on a key Saudi oil pipeline earlier this month.

Earlier on Thursday, Saudi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf urged Muslim nations to confront with "all means of force and firmness" an alleged sabotage of oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates this month and the Saudi oil pipeline attack.

"We should confront it with all means of force and firmness," he said.

Al-Assaf made the comments at a preparatory meeting of foreign ministers of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation, or OIC, ahead of the Mecca summits.

An Iranian official was at the OIC meeting where al-Assaf spoke Thursday, but Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif did not attend.

Iran denies being involved in the attacks, which come amid heightened tensions between Tehran and the U.S. The crisis has root in the Trump administration's decision to withdraw last year from Iran's nuclear deal with world powers.

The summits coincide with the final days of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a time of intense worship when Muslims believe the Quran was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad some 1,400 years ago.

Saudi Arabia will seek to use to the optics of the Mecca gatherings to send a clear and powerful message to Iran, which itself is also a member of the OIC.

The first of the three summits will start with a meeting of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council on Thursday evening. The GCC meeting will be immediately followed with an emergency summit of the 22-nation Arab League, minus Syria whose membership remains suspended.

Qatar's Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani is attending, making it the highest-level visit to Saudi Arabia by a Qatari official since 2017, when the kingdom and three other Arab states cut off ties with the tiny energy-rich Gulf state over its foreign policies.

Washington has tried unsuccessfully to mediate an end to the diplomatic standoff between its Gulf Arab allies. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said Thursday the U.S. welcomes Saudi efforts to discuss Iranian threats in the region.

"Gulf unity is essential in confronting Iran, to confronting their influence, to countering terrorism writ large, and, of course, to ensuring a prosperous future for the Gulf," she said.

The third and final summit, on Friday, is expected to focus largely on Palestinian statehood and independence. It will bring together leaders from the 57-nation OIC, which is headquartered in Saudi Arabia.

In his remarks, al-Assaf reiterated Saudi Arabia's longstanding position on the two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. His comments come as the White House tries to sell its Mideast plan to Arab leaders ahead of a conference in Bahrain next month that the Palestinian leadership is boycotting.

Among those attending are Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al Sabah, and Abdel-Fattah Burhan, the head of Sudan's ruling military council.

It marks the first international conference for Burhan since the ouster of longtime leader Omar al-Bashir from power in April.

Also participating is Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, whose country has uneasy ties with Saudi Arabia, particularly after the killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last year.

Al-Assaf's comments on Iran appeared to mirror remarks made by President Donald Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, who warned Iran on Wednesday that any attacks in the Persian Gulf will draw a "very strong response" from the U.S.

Meanwhile, Trump said this week the U.S. wasn't "looking to hurt Iran at all." During a visit to Tokyo this week, Trump appeared to welcome negotiations with Iran.

"We're not looking for regime change — I just want to make that clear," Trump said. "We're looking for no nuclear weapons."

Also on Wednesday, acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said some 900 troops would be deployed to Qatar and Saudi Arabia to reinforce the tens of thousands already in the Middle East. Another 600 have had their deployment in the region extended.

It's unclear how many of those troops would be sent to Saudi Arabia. Sending a large number of troops to Saudi Arabia could potentially spark a backlash from Muslims around the world because the country is also home to Islam's two holiest sites in Mecca and Medina.

Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida launched the Sept. 11 attacks, in part over America's military presence in the kingdom.

The late King Abdullah refused to allow U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia for the Iraq invasion in 2003, though he permitted them during the first Gulf War in 1991.

___

Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed from Washington.

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