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Trump Says Qatar Funding Terror at 'Very High Level' as Tillerson Wants Blockade Eased

WASHINGTON — President Trump came out swinging against Qatar during a Rose Garden press conference today after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson earlier urged easing of the blockade against the Gulf nation and the Pentagon said the rift was negatively impacting U.S. military operations.

Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Maldives, Mauritius, Mauritania, and Senegal have cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, accusing the kingdom of being a haven for terror financiers, while Jordan and Djibouti have downgraded relations. In response, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has stepped up military cooperation with Qatar and may send more troops there.

“We do not, have not and will not support terrorist groups. The recent joint statement issued by the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE regarding a ‘terror finance watchlist’ once again reinforces baseless allegations that hold no foundation in fact,” the Qatari government said in a statement today. “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 U.S. stages operations in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan from Al-Udeid airbase, the base of U.S. Air Force Central Command and the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing. About 10,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed at the base about 20 miles outside Doha. Only Kuwait hosts a stronger U.S. military presence in the Middle East.

“While current operations from Al Udeid Air Base have not been interrupted or curtailed, the evolving situation is hindering our ability to plan for longer-term military operations,” Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said in a statement today. “Qatar remains critical for coalition air operations in the fight against ISIS and around the region.”

Earlier, at the State Department, Tillerson called for “calm and thoughtful dialogue with clear expectations and accountability among the parties in order to strengthen relationships.”

“We ask that there be no further escalation by the parties in the region. We call on Qatar to be responsive to the concerns of its neighbors. Qatar has a history of supporting groups that have spanned the spectrum of political expression, from activism to violence. The emir of Qatar has made progress in halting financial support and expelling terrorist elements from his country, but he must do more and he must do it more quickly,” he said.

Tillerson called on Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt to “ease the blockade” against Qatar. “There are humanitarian consequences to this blockade. We are seeing shortages of food, families are being forcibly separated, and children pulled out of school. We believe these are unintended consequences, especially during this holy month of Ramadan, but they can be addressed immediately,” he said.

“The blockade is also impairing U.S. and other international business activities in the region and has created a hardship on the people of Qatar and the people whose livelihoods depend on commerce with Qatar. The blockade is hindering U.S. military actions in the region and the campaign against ISIS.”

At a press conference this afternoon with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, Trump jumped straight to Qatar in his opening remarks.

“The nation of Qatar, unfortunately, has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level. And in the wake of that conference, nations came together and spoke to me about confronting Qatar over its behavior,” Trump said, referencing his recent trip to Riyadh. “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.”

“I decided, along with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, our great generals and military people, the time had come to call on Qatar to end its funding — they have to end that funding — and its extremist ideology in terms of funding,” he continued. “I want to call on all of the nations to stop immediately supporting terrorism, stop teaching people to kill other people, stop filling their minds with hate and intolerance. I won’t name other countries, but we are not done solving the problem.”

Trump added that he wants Qatar “back among the unity of responsible nations.”

“We ask Qatar and other nations in the region to do more and do it faster,” he said.