Monday, December 19, 2011

Dempsey, Saudi Partners Discuss Iraq, Regional Challenges

By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia  – Hours after the last U.S. Forces Iraq convoy crossed the border into Kuwait on its way home, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff sat down for the first time with Saudi officials here to discuss Iraq and other developments in the region.

Traveling with a multicountry USO holiday tour to Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and other nations, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey took time today to meet with leaders of one of the United States’ long-time partners in the Middle East.

“I’ve been very clear with all of our partners -- Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and others -- [that] if you’re concerned about the future of Iraq, then we should all work together to help ensure that we achieve a brighter future for Iraq,” Dempsey told reporters who are traveling with him.

“[If Iraq is] left unattended or left to its own devices,” he said, then countries that could have helped the newly sovereign nation “shouldn’t come back and complain about the outcome.”

Today Dempsey met with officials from the Saudi Ministry of Defense and the Saudi Arabia National Guard.

The chairman, who from 2001 to 2003 served in the kingdom to train and advise the Saudi Arabian National Guard, said he and the Saudi officials spent time renewing their acquaintance.

But they also discussed Iraq, Iran’s potential influence on Iraq, the Arab-Israeli conflict, he added, and the growing Saudi investment in the U.S. foreign military sales program.

“On the specific issue of Iraq, I’d say [Saudi officials] are probably concerned about the Iranian influence and are eager to know what we intend to do to make sure that influence doesn’t permeate Iraq,” Dempsey said.

“They asked me what I thought it meant [that the U.S. military is out of Iraq] and they offered to tell me what they thought it meant,” he said, adding, “I wouldn’t describe our discussions at this point as suggesting to each other what we might do.”

The Arab-Israeli conflict was also on the agenda, the chairman said, a routine topic in meetings with Saudi leaders.

“Generally speaking we begin our meetings with a reflection on the fact that from their perspective the key to a lasting settlement in the region is the Arab-Israeli conflict,” Dempsey said.

The Saudis made no judgments about how the United States is managing the conflict, “but I would describe on the part of both the leaders in the Saudi Arabia National Guard and the Ministry of Defense … a heightened sense of concern on the basis of what they consider to be two facts,” Dempsey said.

First, he added, “they are very concerned that our withdrawal from Iraq opens the door for greater Iranian influence, [and] they consider that Iranian influence in Bahrain has a very real chance of destabilizing the region.”

A positive signal from the Saudis is a rapidly growing investment in the U.S. Foreign Military Sales program, he said, with the Saudi Arabia National Guard investment growing four-fold and the Ministry of Defense investment nearly doubling.

And the Saudis have established a new facilities-protection program through the program for critical industries such as oil refineries and water and power plants, Dempsey added.

With the Saudis, he said, “We used to talk about stuff -- material procurements, bright shiny objects. It wasn’t that kind of conversation at all today. It was actually quite substantive; about training and of course geopolitical issues.”

Dempsey added, “I think they feel like they’re in a very good place and … a strong place in terms of capabilities.

“I think they’re genuinely interested now in how they can get better at utilizing [equipment they’ve purchased from the United States], the chairman said, “and I find that to be quite encouraging.”

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