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Mullen defends plans to meet with Middle East leaders

By KEVIN BARON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 21, 2011

DOHA, Qatar — Adm. Mike Mullen said he held “pretty frank” discussions Monday with Saudi Arabia’s military leaders about the turmoil in Bahrain, defending his plans to meet with officials from regimes across the region this week, amid ongoing pro-democracy protests.

“We have a longstanding relationship with leaders in these countries,” said Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “My relationship is with the leaders of the military, and so it’s very natural to continue to meet with them. That doesn’t mean that we don’t all share concerns about what’s happened and look to the future.

“I think it’s really important that we reaffirm the [U.S.-Saudi] relationship.”

Mullen may visit Bahrain later this week, his spokesman Capt. John Kirby confirmed shortly before landing in Qatar on Monday.

“Everybody in the region is watching what’s happening in Bahrain very closely,” Mullen told reporters aboard his plane.

With the situation calmer there, Mullen said, he is hoping that Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa’s steps to reconcile with protesters — and calling off the military — “would continue to work to resolve [their] grievances and concerns.”

“He’s taken some significant positive steps, from a leadership standpoint,” said Mullen, who confirmed that was part of U.S.-Saudi discussions held in Riyadh on Monday. “What struck me was the violence went away almost immediately. I think it’s reassured all of us.”

Mullen also said that he believes while Shiite Iran continues to “take advantage of every opportunity” to cause instability in the region, the ongoing anti-government protests are born from within.

“From my perspective, that has not been the focus of what was happened in Egypt, what happened in Bahrain or any of these other countries,” he said. “Those are, by and large, internal issues, as opposed to issues fomented by some external force.”

In Riyadh, Mullen met with Lt. Gen. Husein Abdullah Al-Qubail, deputy chief of the Saudi General Staff; Prince Khalid Bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, the assistant minister in charge of military aviation; and Sheikh Abdul Mohsen bin Abdul Aziz al Tuweijiri, the assistant deputy commander of the National Guard.. Mullen would not give details of any of those meetings.

A meeting with the Saudi minster for interior security affairs, Prince Mohammed Bin Nayif was canceled because he was attending to floods in the southern city of Jeddah.

“These are friends,” Mullen said of the Saudi military leaders, calling his meetings reassuring.

In Qatar, Mullen will meet his counterpart, Maj. General Hamad bin Ali al-Attiyah, before continuing on to the United Arab Emirates. Mullen’s whistlestop tour also includes Djibouti and Kuwait.

baronk@stripes.osd.mil

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