US top military officer arrives in Saudi Arabia

RIYADH — Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, arrived in Saudi Arabia on Sunday for the first stage of a Gulf tour to boost US relations with its allies in the region.

“Part of what I want to accomplish is to reassure our friends and also just listen to what’s on their mind,” Mullen told journalists.

The highest ranking US military officer’s visit comes as an unprecedented wave of revolts challenges Arab authoritarian regimes, notably in Bahrain and Yemen, after uprisings toppled rulers in Tunisia and Egypt.

The purpose of his mission is to “reassure, discuss and understand what is going on,” Mullen said, adding the “trip was scheduled for other reasons but as it turns out the context has changed.”

In his two-day stay in Saudi Arabia, US President Barack Obama’s top military adviser will meet high-ranking Saudi military officials.

At the top of the agenda is Bahrain, where six people were officially reported killed in last week’s demonstrations, raising pressure on the Sunni Muslim ruling dynasty to talk with the Shiite-led opposition.

Mullen said it was “absolutely critical” that governments and their opposition resolve differences peacefully.

“We certainly would like to see whatever happens happen in a non violent way,” he said. “That where there are differences, they be resolved non violently. And that governments and their people figure this out.”

The Sunni Saudi kingdom has expressed alarm at Iran’s nuclear programme and the Shiite Islamic republic’s growing influence in the Middle East, particularly Bahrain, Iraq and Lebanon which have sizeable Shiite communities.

Foreign ministers of the Gulf monarchies signalled support for Bahrain’s monarchy on Thursday in a joint statement, saying “our security is a collective responsibility and there is no question of accepting foreign interference.”

Bahrain is strategically vital to Washington as it hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which protects the Gulf’s maritime oil routes supplying US operations in Afghanistan.

Saudi Arabia is a long-standing US ally and a key regional player in the war on terrorism, with Washington announcing in October a massive contract to supply Riyadh with fighter jets and helicopters.

Information that Saudi Arabia collects on Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), operating out of Yemen, has also become critical to alert Western governments of potential threats.

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