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Gulf crisis: Trump escalates row by accusing Qatar of sponsoring terror

The Guardian logo The Guardian 9/06/2017 David Smith and Sabrina Siddiqui in Washington and Peter Beaumont in Doha
Trump said: ‘We had a decision to make: do we take the easy road, or do we finally take a hard but necessary action? We have to stop the funding of terrorism.’ © Getty Images Trump said: ‘We had a decision to make: do we take the easy road, or do we finally take a hard but necessary action? We have to stop the funding of terrorism.’

Donald Trump has accused Qatar of sponsoring terrorism at the highest levels, in an extraordinary escalation of the diplomatic row with one America’s most important military partners in the Middle East.

Speaking in the White House rose garden on Friday, Trump said he had decided “the time had come to call on Qatar to end its funding … and its extremist ideology.”

His comments marked his most forthright intervention in a crisis triggered on Monday when Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies launched a co-ordinated diplomatic and economic campaign to isolate Qatar.

Trump said that Arab leaders he met in Saudi Arabia last month had urged him to challenge Qatar, which they accuse of backing extremist groups and cosying up to Iran.

“So we had a decision to make: do we take the easy road, or do we finally take a hard but necessary action? We have to stop the funding of terrorism,” he said. “The nation of Qatar, unfortunately, has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level.”

Trump’s intervention came afterSaudi Arabia and its allies on Friday sanctioned a dozen organisations and 59 people it accused of links to Islamist militancy – a number of them Qataris or with links to Qatar.

The Qatari government said in a statement on Friday: “We do not, have not and will not support terrorist groups.”

US relations with Qatar have long been complicated by Doha’s promotion of a conservative form of Sunni Islam, but the tiny Gulf state is also a close military partner. More than 11,000 US and coalition forces are at al-Udeid air base outside Doha, which is the centre for US air operations over Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan.

Related: US officials scramble to limit Donald Trump's diplomatic damage over Qatar tweets

Qatar had previously called on Trump to intervene decisively, saying he was “crucial” to resolving the crisis.

On Thursday, Meshal bin Hamad al-Thani, Qatar’s ambassador to the US, said: “We believe in his ability to calm this crisis down. We are courageous enough to acknowledge if things need to be amended.”

But Trump’s tone struck a marked contrast with comments by the US secretary of state, who just an hour earlier urged Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain to ease their blockade of Qatar.

In a brief statement to reporters, Rex Tillerson said that the blockade was hampering US military efforts against Islamic State and causing unintended humanitarian consequences.

Tillerson said the US would support efforts to mediate the row, but also said Qatar must do more to crack down on support for terror.

“The emir of Qatar has made progress in halting financial support and expelling terrorists from his country, but he must do more and he must do it more quickly.”

The UAE’s ambassador to Washington welcomed Trump’s comments. “The UAE welcomes President Trump’s leadership in challenging Qatar’s troubling support for extremism. The next step is for Qatar to acknowledge these concerns and commit to re-examine its regional policies,” said Yousef Al Otaiba, according to Reuters.

Ben Rhodes, who served as Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said Trump’s remarks on the crisis were especially confounding because there appeared to be no official US strategy.

“There’s no explanation for why he’s doing what he’s doing,” Rhodes said, warning that Trump’s loose words threatened counter-terrorism operations against Isis, US troops stationed in the region, and risked the escalation of conflict with Iran.

“There’s a short-term risk of increased danger to our national security objectives, and then there’s a longer term risk of escalating conflicts on many fronts,” Rhodes said. “In the Middle East, it’s always a mistake to think that things can’t get worse.”

Qatar’s foreign minister described the blockade as a violation of international law and said there was an attempt to mobilise international opinion against the Gulf emirate. “These procedures that were taken have clear violations of international law and international humanitarian law. They will not have a positive impact on the region but a negative one,” Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani told reporters on Friday during a visit to Germany.

Included on the Saudi sanctions list – which was denounced as “baseless and without foundation in fact” by Qatar – are the Qatari-funded Qatar Charity and Eid Charity, and several prominent figures including businessmen, politicians and senior members of the ruling family, one a former interior minister.

The list also includes the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, Youssef al-Qaradawi, who is based in Doha, and individuals in Libya as well as Shia groups in Bahrain seen by some Gulf Arab governments as linked to Iran.

The sanctions list further tightens the screws on Qatar, home to a key US military base and the host of the 2022 Fifa World Cup.

It also strongly suggests a widening of the aggressive Saudi-led campaign beyond Qatar itself – not least against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – where Youssef al-Qaradawi was tried and sentenced to death in absentia following the 2013 military overthrow of the elected president Mohamed Morsi, a Brotherhood member.

Although Qatar has long denied supporting or funding terror groups, western diplomats have accused it of allowing the funding of some Sunni extremists, such as al-Qaida’s branch in Syria. The same accusations have been levelled against individuals in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

A leading diplomat from the UAE told the Guardian on Thursday that the Gulf states had lost all trust in Qatar.

Omar Saif Ghobas, the UAE’s ambassador to Russia, said: “There is no trust, it has gone. So when the Qatari foreign minister says, ‘Listen, we need to engage in dialogue,’ we have done that for many years – that’s just a statement for western consumption.”

The crisis has provoked anxieties in Qatar, a leading gas exporter as well as an international travel hub, whose flagship carrier Qatar Airways has been forced to fly circuitous and expensive routes over Iran and Turkey after being blocked elsewhere in the Middle East.

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