DOHA, Qatar -- Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on a Saudi Arabia-led bloc of Arab nations Friday to immediately ease the blockade of Qatar and urged all involved in the weeklong Persian Gulf dispute to quickly resolve their differences, remarks that President Donald Trump seemed to undercut less than an hour later.
Trump began a Rose Garden news conference with the visiting president of Romania by saying that the Saudi-led action against Qatar was "hard but necessary." He said he had been consulted in advance by nations that "spoke to me about confronting Qatar," a country he said historically has been a "funder of terrorism at a very high level."
He said he had decided, along with Tillerson and "our great generals and military people, the time had come to call on Qatar to end that funding ... and its extremist ideology."
Trump said Arab leaders he met with in Saudi Arabia last month had urged him to confront Qatar over its behavior.
"The time had come to call on Qatar to end its funding," Trump said. "They have to end that funding."
It wasn't immediately clear how Trump's sharp condemnation might affect U.S. cooperation with Qatar, which hosts some 10,000 U.S. troops and a major U.S. air base that serves as a staging ground for operations in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The Qatari Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Earlier, in a brief, formal statement at the State Department, Tillerson had called for Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt to ease their blockade, warning that it was causing humanitarian hardship in Qatar, harming U.S. and international business and hindering U.S. military actions against the Islamic State group.
"The blockade is hindering U.S. military action in the region, and the campaign against ISIS," Tillerson said, using an acronym for the extremist group. The U.S. military previously had insisted that that the blockade would not affect U.S. military operations in the region.
Tillerson, too, faulted Qatar for allowing funds to flow to extremist groups, but in terms that were much less severe than Trump's. Tillerson said the U.S. was asking Qatar to "be responsive to the concerns of its neighbors."
"Qatar has a history of supporting groups that span the spectrum of political expression, from activism to violence," Tillerson said. He credited Qatar's emir with making progress in curbing financial support and expelling terrorists, but added, "He must do more, and he must do it more quickly."
A senior administration official, speaking after Trump's comments, acknowledged a difference in "tone" with Tillerson. "But I think the policy is consistent," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to explain the apparent discrepancy.
Trump does not oppose easing the blockade -- although he did not mention it -- but "he does believe that [Qatar] deserves it'," the official said. If the Persian Gulf states and Egypt "want to keep the pressure on" in terms of canceling flights with Qatar and "pulling ambassadors ... [Trump] is OK with that."
"Tillerson may initially have had a view, then the president has his view, and obviously the president's view prevails," the official said. He said that the two had spoken immediately before Tillerson's State Department remarks, which the secretary read over the telephone to the president. Tillerson and Mattis also met Trump on Thursday at the White House.
Hours before the U.S. statements on Friday, the four Arab nations placed dozens of people and groups with suspected links to Qatar on a terrorism blacklist, further deepening the dispute.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt designated 59 individuals and 12 charities as terrorists in a joint statement published by the Saudi news agency. The list included the spiritual leader of the Sunni Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as several Qatari-funded charities.
In a joint statement, the Saudis and their partners said they had created the list because of "the continuous and ongoing violations of the authorities in Doha of Qatar's commitments and obligations."
It included 18 Qatari citizens accused of financing terrorism, well-known business executives, politicians and top members of Qatar's ruling family. In addition to the Muslim Brotherhood's leader, Egyptian born-cleric Youssef al-Qaradawi, 25 other Egyptian citizens were included on the list. Shiite Muslim groups in Bahrain, allegedly linked to Iran, were also on the list, as were citizens of Libya, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
In its own statement, the Qatar government said that the list "reinforces baseless allegations that hold no foundation in fact." Qatar, it said, leads the region "in attacking the roots of terrorism" by providing hope to youths through jobs, educating hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and funding local community programs to "challenge extremist agendas."
"The Government of the State of Qatar strongly condemns terrorism in all its forms. We do not, have not and will not support terrorist groups," said the statement. "Indeed, our position on countering terrorism is stronger than many of the signatories of the joint statement -- a fact that has been conveniently ignored by the authors."
The terror list came a day after both Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates declared it a crime, punishable by multiyear prison sentences, to show "sympathy or favoritism" to Qatar or criticize both government's actions toward Qatar through social media or other ways.
The fast-escalating crisis in the Persian Gulf began Monday, when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt severed relations with Qatar, expelled its diplomats and citizens and closed ports, airspace and borders to the small, energy-rich nation surrounded on three sides by the Persian Gulf. Its only land border is with Saudi Arabia.
Trump, in a series of Monday postings on Twitter, quickly congratulated the Saudis and claimed credit for the move. He said that while he was meeting with Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia last month and calling for them to unify against extremism, they had "pointed" at Qatar as a terrorism funder.
Although Trump delivered a speech to dozens of leaders of Muslim-majority countries called to Riyadh for the occasion, the focus of the visit was the bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia, with which the administration said it had concluded "more than half a trillion dollars" of military sales and commercial deals, and the Gulf Cooperation Council, the six-member regional body comprised of the Saudis, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and Oman.
The group has always been less than cohesive, with the Saudis claiming leadership and Qatar challenging its dominance and differing on issues such as forming a working relationship with Iran, which Qatar favors. As they did with former President Barack Obama, the members signed a communique with Trump pledging unity. The Saudis took action against Qatar less than 24 hours after Trump left Riyadh.
Even as Trump was tweeting his approval, Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis, traveling together in Australia, called for calm and mediation. The Pentagon's air operations for the Middle East, and conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, are at a large air base in Qatar, home to at least 10,000 U.S. service members.
Qatar, the world's largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, has long been an influential regional player. In addition to its dialogue with Iran, it has raised the ire of its Persian Gulf neighbors over its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, viewed by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other authoritarian countries as extremists and threats to their existence. Qatar has used its wealth to also support groups such as Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Saudi Arabia, too, has come under scrutiny for indirectly supporting extremist networks that promote the kingdom's arch-conservative Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.
Information for this article was contributed by Karen DeYoung and Sudarsan Raghavan of The Washington Post and by Josh Lederman of The Associated Press.
A Section on 06/10/2017