'We have to stop the funding of terrorism': Trump slams Qatar amid Arab nations' blockade

Trump's condemnation contradicted the message delivered by his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who had urged Qatar's neighbours to ease their blockade while calling for "calm and thoughtful dialogue."

Trump appears to contradict his secretary of state's urging for 'calm and thoughtful dialogue'

U.S. President Donald Trump, while appearing at a White House news conference with Romanian President Klaus Werner Iohannis, accused Qatar of being 'a funder of terrorism at a very high level.' (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

In an extraordinary broadside against a key U.S. partner, President Donald Trump lambasted Qatar on Friday for funding terrorism "at a very high level" and insisted that it stop. "No more funding," the president said.

Trump's condemnation contradicted the message delivered by his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who had urged Qatar's neighbours to ease their blockade while calling for "calm and thoughtful dialogue." Only an hour later, Tillerson sat in the front row in the Rose Garden at the White House as Trump enthusiastically embraced the move by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others to punish Qatar.

"The nation of Qatar, unfortunately, has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level," Trump said, echoing an allegation the Saudi-led group has used to justify cutting diplomatic ties to the tiny gas-rich kingdom. "We have to stop the funding of terrorism."

Despite Tillerson's call for there to be "no further escalation," Trump's sharp comments were likely to further embolden Saudi Arabia and the others in their bid to isolate Qatar. The State Department had said the U.S. learned only at the last minute about the Arab nations' plan to cut ties. But Trump said that he, Tillerson and military leaders had decided during Trump's trip to Saudi Arabia last month that a public rebuke was needed.

"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," Trump said on Friday. Though the president said others, too, were guilty of supporting terrorism, he said he would not name them.

At odds with Tillerson's message

In a day of mixed messages and chaotic diplomacy, Tillerson emphasized the economic, humanitarian and military damage he said the blockade was inflicting. He said families were being separated, children removed from school and Qataris forced to deal with food shortages.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks about Qatar at the State Department in Washington on Friday. Tillerson called on Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to immediately ease their blockade on Qatar. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

"We believe these are unintended consequences, especially during this Holy Month of Ramadan, but they can be addressed immediately," he said.

Tillerson also said the blockade by Qatar's neighbours was "hindering U.S. military action in the region, and the campaign against ISIS." But at the Pentagon, a spokesperson, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, said only long-term military planning was affected. Davis said the diplomatic rift has not interrupted or curtailed operations at Al Udeid airbase, a launching pad for U.S. military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

Pentagon makes contingency plans

Still, the Pentagon has been developing contingency plans in case there's any interruption, defence officials said. Aircraft that fly out of Qatar — including fighter jets, drones and refuelling planes — can be relocated to a number of other bases in the region including in Iraq, Turkey, Kuwait and Bahrain and off aircraft carriers, the officials said.

It wasn't immediately clear how Qatar, which hosts some 10,000 U.S. troops, might respond to Trump's critique. The Qatari Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

Qatar Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani speaks to reporters in Doha, Qatar, on Thursday. Qatar denies that it supports terrorism. (Naseem Zeitoon/Reuters)

The escalating crisis in the Persian Gulf erupted Monday, when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain cut ties to Qatar, accusing the country of tolerating or even encouraging support for extremist groups, including al-Qaeda's Syria branch. Qatar's neighbours have also criticized Qatar for allegedly supporting groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.

"Qatar has a history of supporting groups that span the spectrum of political expression, from activism to violence," Tillerson said. He credited Qatar's emir with making progress in curbing financial support and expelling terrorists, but added, "He must do more, and he must do it more quickly."

Violates international law, Qatar says

The spat has led to one of the worst Gulf crises in decades, with suspended flights and regional ports closed to Qatari ships. Increasing the pressure Friday, Qatar's neighbours put 12 organizations and 59 people on a terror sanctions list and described them as being associated with Qatar. The kingdom called the allegations "baseless."

Qatar, which has developed an assertive foreign policy over the past decade, denied that it supports militants and said it was helping to reduce the threat of terrorism by backing groups that fight poverty and seek political reform.

Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani called the moves by Arab neighbours and others "clear violations of international law and international humanitarian law" during a visit to Germany on Friday, Reuters reported. 

"They will not have a positive impact on the region but a negative one," the minister said.

Tillerson, speaking at the State Department, said the U.S. would help support efforts to mediate the crisis, along with Kuwait — another Gulf country that has stepped up to try to broker a resolution. Urging all sides to avoid further escalation of the conflict, Tillerson said the elements were available to resolve it.

With files from Reuters