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Despite tensions, US inks deal to sell Qatar 36 F-15 jets

15 June 2017

Qatar will sign a deal to buy as many as 36 F-15 jets from the US despite tensions over President Donald Trump's backing for a Saudi-led coalition's move to isolate the country for allegedly supporting terrorism.

Qatari Defence Minister Khalid Al-Attiyah and his US counterpart, Jim Mattis, completed the $12-billion agreement on Wednesday in Washington, according to the Pentagon.

The deal was completed despite the Gulf country being criticized recently by US President Donald Trump for supporting terrorism.

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and representatives from Qatar met on Wednesday to seal the agreement, which Bloomberg News reported was for 36 jets.

The sale "will give Qatar a state of the art capability and increase security cooperation and interoperability between the United States and Qatar," the US Defence Department said in a statement.

Defense Secretary Mattis and Qatari Minister of State for Defense Affairs Khalid al-Attiyah also discussed the current state of operations against the ISIS and the importance of de-escalating tensions so all partners in the gulf region can focus on next steps in meeting common goals, the Pentagon added.

In November, the United States approved possible sale of up to 72 F-15QA aircraft to Qatar for $21.1 billion. Boeing Co is the prime contractor on the fighter jet sale to the Middle East nation.

But that was before Qatar's neighbors, including Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, severed diplomatic, trade and transport links last week in a move they said was aimed at isolating the country for its support of terrorist groups and Iran.

The Trump administration finds itself in a complex position, forced to balance regional rivalries between key allies. Qatar hosts the regional headquarters for US Central Command, which includes a state-of-the-art air base the US depends on to target Islamic State.

Qatar's Defense Ministry said the deal would create 60,000 jobs in 42 US states while reducing the burden on US forces. The F-15 accord will lead to "closer strategic collaboration in our fight to counter violent extremism and promote peace and stability in our region and beyond", the ministry said Wednesday in a statement.

After the Gulf countries moved against Qatar, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson initially declined to take sides in the crisis, but his cautious stance was overshadowed almost immediately by Trump, who sent a series of tweets that appeared to take credit for and praise the decision.

The US position was further muddied last Friday, when Tillerson called on Saudi Arabia to ease the blockade, only to have Trump, at a White House news conference hours later, say the blockade had been the right move.

"The nation of Qatar, unfortunately, has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level," Trump said in a speech at the White House last week. "We ask Qatar, and other nations in the region to do more and do it faster.''

Tillerson has since sought to mediate the dispute from Washington, meeting with Saudi Arabia's foreign minister on Monday. He was scheduled to meet the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates - another member of the Saudi coalition -- for dinner Wednesday night.

"I would characterize the mood and the approach to that as being one that is hopeful, that believes that the worst is behind us," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Tuesday.

While Trump appeared to back Saudi Arabia and Tillerson took a more neutral tone, the Defense Department underscored its relations with Qatar, saying the US was grateful to the country for its support of the US presence there.

"We encourage all our partners in the region to work towards common solutions that enable regional security," Lieutenant Colonel Damien Pickart, a spokesman for US Air Forces Central Command, said in a statement when the crisis began.

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