DOHA, Qatar, Feb. 21, 2011 — The top U.S. military officer arrived here in the Qatari capital today, continuing his weeklong trip through the Middle East after concluding what he called frank, reassuring talks with leaders in Saudi Arabia about widespread regional unrest.
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters concern about violence surrounding many of the pro-democratic movements that have rippled through the region – and how Iran might exert its power in the process – dominated his talks today with Saudi political and military leaders.
The chairman emphasized that he does not believe Iran played a role in toppling the regimes of Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak or in stirring up other protest movements. “These are, by and large, internal issues, as opposed to issues fomented by some external force,” he said.
But nonetheless, Mullen said, the United States and its allies in the region are wary that Iran might use the upheaval as a chance to exert influence. He called Iran “a country that continues to foment instability in the region and take advantage of every opportunity.”
“There are always concerns in this region with Iran. Certainly the United States has them, as well as all the regional players,” he told reporters after concluding today’s meetings in Riyadh. “Certainly that was part of the discussion today with the Saudis.”
In the Saudi capital of Riyadh, the chairman met with Prince Mohammed bin Niyif, assistant interior minister for security affairs; Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, commander of Saudi Arabia’s national guard; Prince Khalid bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, assistant defense and aviation minister for military affairs; and Lt. Gen. Qubail, deputy chief of the general staff. He also met with U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia James Smith and his staff.
Mullen said his talks focused largely on the tumult in Bahrain, where a violent weekend left many anti-government protestors dead. “Obviously the Saudis, in particular — but everybody in the region — is watching what’s happening in Bahrain very closely,” he said.
The Saudi government, concerned that whatever happens there could spill over to Saudi Arabia’s eastern province, has expressed support for Bahrain’s ruling Khalifa family and sent a warning to Iran.
“The kingdom of Saudi Arabia stands with all its capabilities behind the state and the brotherly people of Bahrain,” the government-run Saudi Press Agency announced in a statement. Saudi Arabia expressed “absolute rejection” of foreign tampering in Bahrain’s affairs.
Mullen credited Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa’s decision not to use force against the protestors and to begin a national dialogue to address their issues with bringing about an apparent reduction in violence iover the last 36 hours in Bahrain. “He has taken some significant, positive steps from a leadership standpoint … to resolve the grievances and the concerns,” the chairman said.
The chairman arrived here today for the second leg of a trip that also includes stops in United Arab Emirates, Djibouti and Kuwait, and possibly Bahrain.
Tonight in Doha, Mullen will be the guest of honor at a dinner hosted by Maj. Gen. Hamad bin Ali al-Attiyah, the Qatari armed forces’ chief of staff. He has meetings slated tomorrow with Sheikh bin Hamad al Thani, ruling emir of Qatar since 1995.
From there, Mullen is slated to travel to United Arab Emirates, where he will meet with leaders and attend the International Defense Exposition and Conference in Abu Dhabi. Later this week, he will visit Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, then will conclude his trip in Kuwait with ceremonies marking the 20th anniversary of its liberation during Operation Desert Storm.
Although the visit had been long-scheduled, Mullen told reporters traveling with him, its context changed dramatically in light current events. He dismissed the notion that his trip shows the United States is taking sides in regional conflicts, emphasizing the importance of peaceful resolution to the current situation in the strategically important Gulf region.
“We have a longstanding relationship with the leaders in these countries,” he said, noting his own close ties with their military leaders. “That doesn’t mean we don’t all share concern about what has happened and look to the future,” he said. “It is really important that we reaffirm the relationship” and evaluate “what has occurred and how we are going to look to the future together.”
The chairman said he would press throughout his trip for all sides in these situations to show restraint as they work through their differences.
“We certainly would like to see whatever happens happen in a nonviolent way — that where there are differences, they be resolved nonviolently, and that governments and their people figure this out,” he said.
Meanwhile, in response to a reporter’s question, Mullen expressed no particular concern about Egypt’s decision to allow Iranian warships to pass through the Suez Canal. Noting that he has transited the canal himself more than once, the chairman said it’s an issue for Egypt, which controls the canal, to address.
“It is really for the government of Egypt and the government of Iran to work that out,” he said.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)