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Pompeo urges end to Qatar boycott and again plans to confront Saudi Arabia over murder of journalist

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shakes hands with the Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani at the Sea Palace in Doha on Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019, during his extensive Middle East tour. (Andrew Cabballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images/TNS) (FUWTSO)
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U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo on Sunday urged Saudi Arabia and other U.S. Arab allies in the region to repair a long-festering rift with Qatar, expressing frustration that little progress has been made.

The dispute “has dragged on too long,” he told reporters in the Qatari capital, Doha, between meetings with top government officials there. “It’s on everyone’s mind and not at all clear that the rift is any closer to being resolved today than it was yesterday. And I regret that.”

Pompeo was winding down a whirlwind nine-nation Middle East mission to drum up support for a stronger coalition against Iran. He flew later Sunday to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, and on Monday heads to Oman and Kuwait.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates imposed a blockade on Qatar more than a year ago, cutting land and sea lines in an attempt to cripple its economy. Its neighbors say gas-rich Qatar, home to the region’s largest U.S. military base, is too friendly to Iran, too independent and too supportive of Islamist opposition groups that the region’s autocrats would like to crush.

The diplomatic crisis began in June 2017, and initially President Donald Trump gave unequivocal support to the Saudis over Qatar. Some diplomats believe that may have hardened the Saudi position and made the Saudis less willing to negotiate.

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Then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sought to rebalance the U.S. position and push for a more equitable diplomatic solution, an effort that Pompeo has continued. Lack of unity within the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council hurts U.S. goals, he said.

“Disputes between countries that have a shared objective are never helpful,” Pompeo said. “We’re hopeful that the unity of the GCC will increase in the days and weeks and months ahead.”

In an informal “meet and greet” with U.S. Embassy employees stationed in Doha, the rift was one of the main questions weighing on the participants’ minds. The other was the partial shutdown of the U.S. government, which has also hurt State Department personnel overseas.

Pompeo said he also will press Saudi officials on the Oct. 2 slaying of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Pompeo was scheduled to meet Monday with Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince and de facto ruler whose close aides have been implicated in the killing.

It will be the second time since the slaying that Pompeo will sit down with Mohammed for discussions aimed at — as he put it — “ensuring that the accountability is full and complete.” Pompeo was widely criticized for seeming overly chummy with the crown prince in a meeting in Riyadh two weeks after Khashoggi was killed.

“We will continue to have conversations with the crown prince and the Saudis about ensuring that the accountability is full and complete with respect to the unacceptable murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” Pompeo said. He said he wanted to make sure investigators “had all the facts.”

U.S. intelligence agencies have suggested that Mohammed may have been involved in the killing, which the crown prince has denied. Both Trump and Pompeo have been reluctant to pin blame on him because of Saudi Arabia’s important role in countering Iran.

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© 2019 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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