Saudi Arabia doesn’t want US troops to leave Iraq and fears that a withdrawal could make the Middle East less safe, the country’s Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud told CNN on Monday.
Faisal said the American presence in the region played a crucial role in defeating ISIS and was key to preventing the resurgence of the terror group. “The US has proven time and again to be a reliable ally of the Kingdom, and this is also the case with the Trump administration,” he told CNN.
“We work very well with President Trump and with the State Department and the Pentagon and we coordinate on issues of regional security,” he said. There are around 3,000 US troops currently stationed in Saudi Arabia.
Calls for US troops to withdraw from Iraq have intensified following the killing of the top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in Iraq earlier this month. Hundreds of thousands of protesters marched through Baghdad on Friday calling for US troops to leave. There are roughly 5,000 US troops in Iraq.
Iraq’s parliament voted to expel the US military from the country following the attack against Soleimani, but the Trump administration has said it does not intend to pull troops out. Faisal said a US withdrawal could increase the risk of the return of ISIS.
“We believe that the defeat of ISIS was very much based on the contribution of the international coalition, including the US,” he said. “We think that while ISIS is geographically defeated they continue to pose a threat and it’s very important that the international community continue to support the Iraqi forces to remain vigilant and the American presence is an important of that,” he added.
Faisal said he believed the US acted in “their own legitimate self-defense” when it struck against Soleimani, and added he agreed with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the region was safer following Soleimani’s death. The Trump administration said at the time the strike was meant to head off an imminent attack on Americans.
However, he said he did not see any change of behavior from Iran following the attacks.
“The statements aren’t positive. But we will continue to call on them to behave in a way that can support regional stability,” he said.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are long-time adversaries. Riyadh blamed Iran for a drone attack on Saudi oil facilities in September, but chose not to escalate the situation.
Iran has denied responsibility, but US and Saudi investigators determined “with very high probability” that the attack was launched from an Iranian base in Iran close to the border with Iraq.
Following the attack, Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif warned of “all-out war” in the event of US or Saudi military strikes against his country, and questioned whether Saudi Arabia was prepared to fight “to the last American soldier.”
Asked about the murder of Jamal Khashogg, Faisal said he believed the case – which he called a “terrible crime” – has had a “very profound effect” on all Saudis.
“We have quite clearly said that we have a responsibility to hold those responsible accountable,” he sai.
A trial last month led to five people being sentenced to death. It cleared a former top adviser to the Crown Prince. But Agnes Callamard, a UN human rights expert who investigated the Khashoggi murder, said last March that the country’s “closed-door trials” did not live up to international standards.
“The Government of Saudi Arabia is grievously mistaken if it believes that these proceedings, as currently constituted, will satisfy the international community, either in terms of procedural fairness under international standards or in terms of the validity of their conclusions,” she said.
Faisal said on Monday that “there is a level of transparency that we thought was necessary.”
“We are very proud of our judicial system, which is independent and works by its rules, and we followed those rules,” he added.
CNN’s Ivana Kottasová contributed to this story.