Qatar hack, bloody Bahrain raid follow Trump's Mideast trip

By AYA BATRAWY and JON GAMBRELL Features Associated Press

Qatar found itself on the defensive once again Thursday as more Arab nations blocked access to websites of its flagship Al-Jazeera news network, just days after U.S. President Donald Trump's Mideast visit positioned America squarely with Sunni Arab countries against Shiite power Iran.

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Bahrain and Egypt joined Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in blocking the websites, the latest development in a regional crisis sparked by what Qatar described as hackers publishing fake comments on Iran and other issues via its state-run news agency this week.

While Trump's visit reassured a six-nation Saudi-led Gulf alliance of its regional standing, tiny, energy-rich Qatar has found itself on the fringes of the Western-backed alliance as the hack rekindled long-standing suspicions over its support of Islamists. Qatar's woes could signal more unsettled weeks ahead as newly emboldened Gulf rulers translate Trump's support into action.

"Trump's approach will complicate any admittedly remote chance of a Saudi-Iranian detente," warned Ayham Kamel, the Mideast and North Africa director of the Eurasia Group. "Even before Trump, the Saudis hand embarked on a harsh policy toward Iran — the new U.S. administration will only increase their confidence on this issue."

Trump's visit to the kingdom included a staggering $110 billion dollar Saudi defense purchase and a summit of heads of state from Muslim-majority nations — an event to which Iran received no invitation.

Qatar's ruling emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani was among several regional leaders to have one-on-one talks with Trump during his Saudi visit. Trump referred to Qatar, which hosts the U.S. Central Command and some 10,000 American troops, as a "crucial strategic partner."

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However, the peninsular nation's relations with its neighbors were thrown into chaos this week after Qatari authorities say its state-run news agency was hacked. Officials say hackers published a fake story claiming that the emir had called Iran an "Islamic power" and said Qatar's relations with Israel were "good" during a military ceremony. Messages on the news agency's Twitter account that Qatar also blamed on the hackers said it planned to recall some of its ambassadors from Arab nations.

No one has claimed responsibility for the purported hack.

Despite Qatar refuting the comments, Saudi Arabia's state-linked media ran the purported fake remarks by Sheikh Tamim and accused Qatar of siding with regional enemies. Egypt on Thursday also blocked other websites as well, including that of Mada Masr, a popular online news outlet known for its investigative reports on the Egyptian government.

Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed Al Thani told reporters at a news conference Thursday that Qatar was facing a "hostile media campaign" in the U.S., pointing to 13 opinion pieces written in the past few weeks criticizing Qatar. It also noted that shortly before the hack, an event in Washington was hosted by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, which repeatedly has criticized Qatar's support of Islamists.

The foreign minister told journalists that his country wants "brotherly" ties with its Gulf Arab neighbors, but that there have been no direct talks with any regarding the alleged cyberattack.

Three years ago, several Gulf nations pulled their ambassadors from Qatar to protest the country's support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and across the region. While Qatar appears to have reined in some support for the Brotherhood, Western officials have accused Qatar of allowing or even encouraging funding of Sunni extremists like al-Qaida's branch in Syria, once known as the Nusra Front.

Kamel of the Eurasia Group said the disputed comments attributed to the emir largely reflect Qatar's policies. Qatar has leveraged relations with Iran to prevent Saudi dominance in the region, he said.

Qatar continues to call for serious talks with Iran, starkly contrasting Saudi Arabia's powerful deputy crown prince who has ruled out such a dialogue . Qatar splits control of a vast underwater natural gas field with Iran in the Persian Gulf.

Meanwhile, other confrontations have followed Trump's visit.

Police in Sunni-ruled Bahrain — a member of the Gulf alliance — raided a town home to a prominent Shiite cleric, arresting 286 people in an assault that killed five demonstrators. The tiny island-state hosting the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet and heavily supported by neighboring Saudi Arabia long has accused Iran of arming Shiite militants and seeking to foment unrest.

Tensions have also risen in Saudi Arabia's oil-rich Eastern Province between Shiite activists and security forces there.

"Hard-line royal elements who favor tougher action against Shiite protests may regard President Trump's (comments) in Riyadh as permission to escalate," Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy wrote after the Bahrain raid. It "could have dangerous consequences for both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia."

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Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellap and Aya Batrawy on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ayaelb