Secretary of State Rex Tillerson oversaw the first meeting of a new alliance between Saudi Arabia and Iraq as the U.S. looks to blunt spreading Iranian influence in Iraq and across the Gulf region.
Tillerson said the newly established Saudi Arabia-Iraq Coordination Council “highlights the strength and breadth as well as the great potential of the relationship between your countries.” He called the the growing relationship “vital to bolstering our collective security and prosperity.”
The U.S. secretary is in Saudi Arabia seeking more money for reconstruction in Iraq, after U.S.-backed forces ousted Islamic State from its key strongholds in the country. He is also looking to counter Iranian influence under a broader strategy to confront the government in Tehran.
Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Gulf states are engaged in their own efforts to roll back Shiite-led Iran’s expanding sway in the region, including in Iraq, where Shiite parties have dominated politics since the U.S. toppled the secular, Sunni-dominated regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
“We are facing in our region serious challenges in the form of extremism, terrorism as well as attempts to destabilize our countries,” Saudi King Salman said at the event. “These attempts require our full attention.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi also praised bolstered ties, while adding that “interference in the internal affairs of other state should stop.” He didn’t elaborate.
Tillerson was expected to fly to Qatar later on Sunday. The U.S. is also seeking to resolve a standoff between the emirate and a Saudi-led bloc of four countries that has cut most economic ties with Qatar, in part over its own growing connection with Iran.
In a further sign of efforts to bind Saudi Arabia and Iraq closer together, Saudi Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih visited the country on Saturday.
The relationship between Iraq and Iran has been revived as a political issue in the U.S. as well, with Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, saying last week that the U.S. may have to re-evaluate its support for Baghdad if its government continues to “effectively act as a puppet of Iran.”