WASHINGTON — In a remarkable clash between two key US allies over Iran’s role in the fight against the Islamic State, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq took the unusual step on Wednesday of publicly criticizing the Saudi air campaign in Yemen and then suggested that the United States agreed with him.
Shortly afterward, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, sharply rebutted the Iraqi prime minister, saying there was “no logic to those remarks.’’ He vigorously defended the three-week-old Saudi air campaign aimed at stopping the Houthi fighters battling for control of Yemen.
The comments from Abadi and Jubeir illustrate the challenges facing the Obama administration as it tries to hold together a diverse coalition, including Sunni Arab states and Shi’ite-dominated Iraq, against the Islamic State.
It is a difficult balancing act. The Saudi air campaign is in support of US-backed officials in Yemen and against the Iranian-backed Houthis. Yet in its fight against Islamic State in Iraq, Washington finds itself supporting an Iraqi offensive that has relied on Iran for logistical and military backing.
Abadi, who is making his first official visit to Washington, spoke early in the day to a small group of reporters at Blair House, the guest residence for visiting dignitaries. Jubeir held a news conference at the Saudi Embassy a few hours later and made his remarks about Abadi in response to questions from reporters, some of whom had met with Abadi at Blair House.
Jubeir offered a highly positive picture of the Saudi campaign in Yemen, saying that the bombing had destroyed attack planes, helicopters, ballistic missiles, air defenses, and command elements. But he gave no precise figures.
He dismissed as “false” reports that Saudi bombers had accidentally killed numerous civilians in some of their airstrikes, saying Saudi Arabia had taken measures to minimize risks to Yemeni civilians.
The air campaign has also created fissures among the Houthis and loyalists to the former Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Jubeir said. That has prompted some senior Yemeni officers — he did not say how many — to defect back to the government side, abandoning Saleh. “We’re beginning to see cracks in their leadership,” Jubeir said.
The ambassador dismissed Abadi’s claim that United States officials were worried about the goals and conduct of the air campaign, saying that no US official had complained to him about it.
The United States is flying Predator and Reaper reconnaissance drones over Yemen and transmitting the information to a 20-person American military coordination team divided among Riyadh, Qatar, and Bahrain, said a senior US military official.
Under the arrangement, Saudi Arabia gives lists of potential targets to the US analysts for vetting. “We are not choosing their targets, but upon request, we’re providing intelligence to help Saudi Arabia with their precision, effectiveness, and avoidance of collateral damage,” the official said.
For his part, Abadi said the fighting in Yemen had created huge humanitarian problems.
“There is no logic to the operation at all in the first place,” Abadi said. “Mainly, the problem of Yemen is within Yemen.”
The Iraqi leader met Tuesday with President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Secretary of State John Kerry. During his visit, Abadi also plans to meet with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, congressional leaders, top executives from oil companies and banks, and the heads of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
The Obama administration has sought to reassure Saudi Arabia and Arab states that it is attuned to their security concerns, especially as it tries to complete a nuclear accord with Iran, their regional adversary.