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Tillerson begins trip to Mideast

Envoy to tackle thorny issues

CAIRO -- Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived in Cairo on Sunday, beginning a swing through the Middle East as it grapples with political turmoil and military clashes.

Tillerson was already facing a series of confrontational talks at almost every stop on his five-country tour. The strains grew even more taut over the past few days when Egypt launched an offensive against militants in the Sinai region and Israel skirmished with the Iranian-affiliated Syrian military.

Israel said it destroyed an Iranian drone that entered its airspace, and an Israeli plane was shot down as it returned from an attack on an Iranian site in Syria. U.S. officials offered quick assurances of support for Israel's right to defend itself and called on Iran to get out of Syria.

In addition to Egypt, Tillerson will visit Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey in the coming days, where he will engage with many of the most complicated and sensitive issues embroiling the region today.

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"These are some of our closest partners," a senior State Department official told reporters on the condition of anonymity to preview the trip. "But they're also partners with whom we're facing some of the toughest issues that we have to face in the region."

The Cairo stop underscores the balancing act Tillerson faces this week.

The United States sees Egypt as an important ally in fighting terrorists, particularly the Islamic State and its potent offshoot in the northern Sinai. But Washington also is concerned about threats to democracy and civil rights in the country as President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has quashed any meaningful opponents to his bid for re-election next month. The opposition is calling for a boycott of the vote after serious challengers were either arrested or forced to quit the race.

The United States has suspended $195 million in military aid over concerns about human rights and democracy.

Tillerson will meet with el-Sissi in Cairo today. He will raise human-rights issues with el-Sissi, according to U.S. officials, who previewed the trip on condition they not be named.

In Kuwait on Tuesday, Tillerson will attend a conference focusing on how to reconstruct a devastated Iraq in the years and decades ahead. Tillerson will not be making any new U.S. assistance pledges at the Iraq Reconstruction Conference, the officials said. Instead, he'll press companies and banks to boost activities in Iraq to spur long-term development. About 2,300 representatives from the private sector, including from more than 100 American companies, are to attend.

Tillerson also will meet with foreign ministers about the next step in foiling Islamic State militants. He will seek to focus the 74 members of the anti-Islamic State coalition, many of whom are increasingly distracted by national interests in Iraq and Syria, on the alliance's priorities, including stopping the militants at borders and deterring recruits.

The U.S. officials said the aim was to keep the coalition focused on the complete defeat of the Islamic State and other militant groups, and then rebuilding war-devastated zones to prevent extremists from regaining territory. They said the coalition would look at containment and elimination of the Islamic State outside Iraq and Syria by strengthening intelligence sharing, law enforcement cooperation and counter-extremist messaging.

Tillerson will also discuss the months-long trade embargo several Gulf countries have imposed on Qatar, which Kuwait is trying to mediate. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt complain that Qatar was moving too close to Iran and supporting militant groups. Doha denies the accusations.

The policies of President Donald Trump's administration will be the center of Tillerson's talks in Amman, Jordan. With a large Palestinian population, Jordan is unhappy with Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital and move the U.S. Embassy there, as well as his administration's subsequent decision to withhold aid money from the U.N. agency assisting Palestinian refugees.

The kingdom is strapped by an influx of 650,000 Syrian refugees, and Tillerson is set to sign an agreement to assist and cooperate with Jordan in tackling security, defense and economic issues.

It was unclear what kind of reception recent remarks by Trump, published Sunday in the Israel Hayom daily, would receive in Jordan. Trump questioned Israel's interest in making peace with the Palestinians, spotlighting its West Bank settlements as a complicating factor.

He also cast doubt on the Palestinians' desire to strike a deal. But his comments about Israel mark a rare criticism from a president who has publicly sparred with the Palestinians while forging warm ties with Israel ahead of the expected presentation of a U.S. peace outline.

"Right now, I would say the Palestinians are not looking to make peace, they are not looking to make peace. And I am not necessarily sure that Israel is looking to make peace. So we are just going to have to see what happens," Trump was quoted as saying. He did not disclose details about the anticipated peace plan.

During a brief visit to Beirut, Tillerson is expected to press Lebanese officials to rein in Hezbollah, the Iran-backed group that is a threat to neighboring Israel.

U.S. officials said Friday that most of Tillerson's discussions will likely be difficult, noting that those with NATO ally Turkey will probably be especially prickly given Turkish military action against U.S.-backed Kurdish rebels in northern Syria and escalating anti-American rhetoric in Ankara. A rising tide of anti-Americanism is spurred on by the government's media mouthpieces, who have called the United States an enemy of Turkey.

U.S. officials have expressed concern for the safety of locally hired employees of the U.S. Embassy. Some employees and U.S. citizens are under arrest in the state of emergency declared after a 2016 coup attempt. And tempers have flared over the situation in Syria, where the United States supports Kurdish fighters that Turkey considers to be terrorists.

"The rhetoric is hot, the Turks are angry, and this is a difficult time to do business," the State Department official acknowledged to reporters, adding that it is important to search for common ground. "It's going to be a difficult conversation."

ISRAELI MESSAGE

On Sunday, Israel's prime minister vowed to take further action against the country's adversaries after the most serious Israeli engagement in Syria since the war there began almost seven years ago.

"Yesterday we dealt severe blows to the Iranian and Syrian forces," Benjamin Netanyahu said. "We made it unequivocally clear to everyone that our rules of action have not changed one bit. We will continue to strike at every attempt to strike at us. This has been our policy, and it will remain our policy."

Israel has tried to stay on the sidelines since the civil war broke out in neighboring Syria in 2011, though it has periodically carried out airstrikes against suspected weapons shipments believed to be headed for Hezbollah, the Iranian- and Syrian-allied militant group in Lebanon. But as the Syrian war winds down, Israeli officials have voiced increasing alarm that Iran and its Shiite allies are establishing a permanent presence in Syria that could turn its aim toward Israel.

Israel fears that Iran could use Syrian territory to stage attacks or create a land corridor from Iran to Lebanon that would allow it to transfer weapons more easily to Hezbollah -- a powerful Shiite militant group sworn to Israel's destruction.

Israeli leaders said the airstrikes sent a clear message to Iran.

"We do not just talk, we act," said Cabinet minister Yoav Galant, a former Israeli deputy chief of staff and member of Netanyahu's Security Cabinet.

"I think that also the Syrians now understand well that the fact that they are hosting the Iranians on Syrian soil harms them," he said.

Saturday's airstrikes marked the toughest Israeli aerial assault in Syria in decades.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war in Syria through a network of activists on the ground, said Sunday that at least six Syrian troops and allied militiamen were killed in the airstrikes.

Information for this article was contributed by Carol Morello of The Washington Post and by Matthew Lee, Hamza Hendawi, Aron Heller, Zeina Karam and staff members of The Associated Press.

A Section on 02/12/2018

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