Trump highlights Iranian threat in call for united front against terrorism
Riyadh // Donald Trump accused Iran of “fuelling the fires of sectarian conflict and terror” as he urged a gathering of Arab and Muslim leaders in Riyadh to join him in eradicating Islamist terrorism.
In a speech that showed his willingness to work more closely with Muslim states on counter-terrorism and containing Iran, the US president said: “From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds, arms, and trains terrorists, militias, and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region. Until the Iranian regime is willing to be a partner for peace, all nations of conscience must work together to isolate it.”
King Salman also condemned what he said was Iran’s role as the “tip of the spear” of terrorism around the world.
“Our responsibility before God and our people and the whole world is to stand united to fight the forces of evil and extremism wherever they are,” the Saudi monarch said ahead of Mr Trump’s address to the Arab-Islamic American Summit.
Speaking for half an hour inside the King Abdulaziz International Convention Centre, the US president also continued his change in tone since taking office on the conflict in Syria, describing Bashar Al Assad primarily as a proxy of Tehran, not a bulwark against ISIL.
“Among Iran’s most tragic and destabilising interventions have been in Syria. Bolstered by Iran, Assad has committed unspeakable crimes,” he said.
The US president met with GCC leaders earlier in the day and with officials and heads of state from dozens of Muslim-majority countries who are also mainly members of the Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance. A key goal for the two-day trip – which was extended to include an extra night – is to enhance the military and security capabilities of traditional Middle East allies so that they can eventually take on more of the burden for counter-terrorism and countering Iran’s growing regional power.
“We have also started discussions with many of the countries present today on strengthening partnerships, and forming new ones, to advance security and stability across the Middle East and beyond,” Mr Trump said.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, who led the UAE delegation to the summit, said the event was a “clear Islamic, Arab and American message to those attempting to use religion to stoke confrontations between Islam and the US.”
The eagerly awaited speech, designed to change perceptions about his stance on Islam, had been billed beforehand as a clarion call for Muslim countries to do more to fight terrorists and counter extremist ideology.
“Above all we must be united in pursuing the one goal that transcends every other consideration,” Mr Trump said. “That goal is to meet history’s great test – to conquer extremism and vanquish the forces of terrorism.
“Young Muslim boys and girls should be able to grow up free from fear, safe from violence, and innocent of hatred. And young Muslim men and women should have the chance to build a new era of prosperity for themselves and their peoples.”
He emphasised that the fight was against groups like ISIL and not between faiths.
“This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilisations,” Mr Trump said. “This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it. This is a battle between good and evil.”
After the speech, Mr Trump inaugurated a US-Saudi digital counter extremism centre in Riyadh. In broad terms, Mr Trump beseeched his audience to take similar steps.
“Will we be indifferent in the presence of evil? Will we protect our citizens from its violent ideology? Will we let its venom spread through our societies? Will we let it destroy the most holy sites on earth? If we do not confront this deadly terror, we know what the future will bring – more suffering and despair”
Mr Trump moderated and added some complexity to his discussion of terrorism and extremism, acknowledging that “some estimates hold that more than 95 per cent of the victims of terrorism are themselves Muslim”.
He added that the “innocent people of Arab, Muslim and Middle Eastern nations” had been the biggest victims of terror.
He did not describe the threat as one posed by “radical Islamic extremists”, which was a key phrase used to rally support during his election campaign. Last year he derided his predecessor Barack Obama and campaign rival Hillary Clinton for refusing to use the phrase, claiming they were scared to confront the true threat.
Instead Mr Trump used “Islamist extremism” and simply “terrorists” to describe those carrying out atrocities in the region and beyond.
He included Hizbollah and Hamas alongside the terror groups ISIL and Al Qaeda, who he blamed for unleashing a “humanitarian and security disaster in the region”.
The US president took time to thank partners in the region for their role in combating extremist groups, including the Saudi-led coalition battling Iran-backed rebels in Yemen and “Emirati troops supporting our Afghan partners”.
He also dressed the scale of the threat from extremists to the region in religious language, saying if leaders are unable to stand together and condemn the killing they would not only be judged by their people and history, but by God.
The president also took time to reflect on all that is good in the region.
The Middle East “should increasingly become one of the great global centres of commerce and opportunity”, Mr Trump said. “This region should not be a place from which refugees flee, but to which newcomers flock.”
He held up the UAE, where he has a Trump-branded golf course, as a model for the region.
“The United Arab Emirates has also engaged in the battle for hearts and souls — and with the US, launched a centre to counter the online spread of hate,” Mr Trump said.
He added: “All over the world, people dream of walking through the ruins of Petra in Jordan. Iraq was the cradle of civilisation and is a land of natural beauty. And the United Arab Emirates has reached incredible heights with glass and steel, and turned earth and water into spectacular works of art.”
Dr Anwar Gargash, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, praised the speech for “defining an approach towards extremism and terrorism with candid respect and friendship”.
The US president spoke near the end of his two-day visit to Riyadh, his first foreign trip, where he has sought to gain diplomatic wins based on overlapping interests between the US and Gulf countries, and at a time when his administration in Washington is in crisis.
Mr Trump and Saudi officials signed off on defence sales to Riyadh that are worth $110 billion (Dh404bn) immediately, and $350bn more over the next decade.
Watch the speech below
Trump in Saudi Arabia
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Updated: May 21, 2017 04:00 AM