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Trump takes centre stage in dispute over Jamal Khashoggi
[ISTANBUL] Turkey and Saudi Arabia are increasingly focused on Washington as the decisive factor in their escalating standoff over the disappearance of a Saudi dissident, according to people representing both sides of the dispute.
Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post, entered the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on Oct 2. But the two countries maintain starkly divergent accounts of what happened next.
Turkish officials, who have presented security camera footage of Mr Khashoggi walking into the consulate, accuse the Saudis of killing him inside and dismembering his body with a bone saw.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other Saudi officials have insisted repeatedly that Mr Khashoggi left the consulate freely, without showing any video footage of him exiting the building to corroborate their version of events.
Now Turkish officials say they are counting on Washington to force Saudi Arabia to provide a more detailed accounting of what actually happened to Mr Khashoggi.
Turkish officials say they have video and audio evidence demonstrating that he was killed. But they are concerned that without pressure from the United States, a vital ally of Saudi Arabia, they will not have enough leverage to get the Saudis to acknowledge what took place inside the consulate.
"At the end of the day, the US has to take action," said one senior Turkish official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to discuss internal deliberations. "The ball is in Trump's court."
President Donald Trump said Friday that he planned to speak with King Salman, the prince's father, about the disappearance but that he had not done so yet.
"I will be calling, I will be calling at some point King Salman," Mr Trump told reporters travelling with him in Ohio. "A lot of people are looking to find out because it is potentially a really, really terrible situation."
But Mr Trump also deflected questions about the kingdom's human rights record. Asked if it had been overlooked for too long, the president directed attention to other countries.
"I think a lot of records are overlooked," he said.
"If you look at Iran, if you look at some of the other countries, if you take a look at Syria, if you take a look at a lot of countries, a lot of countries' records have been overlooked. But this is a very serious thing and we're looking at it in a very serious manner."
Turkish officials have dribbled out a series of lurid leaks describing an assassination scheme so complex that it could have been directed only from a senior level of the Saudi royal court: a team of 15 agents, including a top Saudi doctor of forensics, flying into Turkey on two private planes the day of Mr Khashoggi's appointment at the consulate expressly to kill him and dispose of the mess.
In public statements, however, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has stopped short of directly accusing the Saudis.
Several Turkish officials have said their president has held his fire in part because he hopes that Washington will help push Saudi Arabia to acknowledge what happened to Khashoggi.
But such faith in Washington is hard for almost any Turkish politician to espouse publicly these days because of a tide of anti-Americanism that has swept the country since Mr Trump raised tariffs on several categories of Turkish imports, punishing the country's already-struggling economy.
"Intervention by Trump is the highest form of mockery," Resul Tosun, a columnist for the pro-government Star newspaper wrote Friday, arguing that any US help with the investigation would "portray Turkey as a banana republic".
But even some critics of Mr Erdogan say his government's leak strategy may swing Washington its way.
"The public attention is enough now; the story cannot be buried anymore," said Asli Aydintasbas, a Turkish commentator critical of the president, recounting the extensive coverage in US newspapers and the statements of US politicians criticising Saudi Arabia.
"The Saudis are being held responsible," she added.
A Saudi delegation arrived in Turkey on Friday morning to address the case, a day after the two countries had announced plans for a joint "working group" to investigate Mr Khashoggi's disappearance.
But instead of heading for the site of the disappearance in Istanbul, the delegation landed first in Turkey's capital, Ankara, suggesting that diplomatic negotiations may have been a higher priority than police work.
Some of Saudi Arabia's allies in Washington acknowledge that pressure from the United States could force the kingdom to offer some account of Khashoggi's fate — even if it is a modified version that shields the kingdom's day-to-day ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed, from any responsibility.
One analyst sympathetic to the rulers of the kingdom, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid alienating the court, said that even US senators "friendly to Saudi Arabia" had begun expressing alarm.
"Clearly something went horribly wrong, and Saudi Arabia has to come out and make a credible explanation," the analyst said. "I expect some clarification from Riyadh very soon."
Sen Lindsey Graham, and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said mounting signs that Saudi Arabia may have killed Khashoggi threatened to "destroy any relationship I have with that part of Saudi Arabia".
"With every passing day it is less likely that he is alive and more likely that the Saudi Arabian government had a hand in his death, and if that is the case, that will be an act of contempt by them for the United States," Mr Graham said.
"If the crown prince had something to do with this, I don't see how he could be a legitimate leader on the international stage again."
Unlike with other foreign policy issues, Mr Trump faces a bipartisan chorus calling for a tougher approach to Saudi Arabia. Reps Edward Royce, and the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Eliot Engel, the ranking minority member, sent a letter to Mr Trump on Friday urging him to cancel Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin's planned trip to Saudi Arabia next week to participate in a business conference there.
"Participation in this conference is not critical to our economic security and would potentially undermine efforts to show the Saudi government and others around the world that brazen attacks on civilians inside consular facilities are unacceptable," they wrote.
They also urged Mr Trump to review Saudi citizens serving in diplomatic posts in the United States. "There should be no chance that what apparently happened in Ankara could happen here," they wrote.
So far, Mr Trump has not cancelleded Mr Mnuchin's trip, although he hinted Friday that the stop might be scrubbed. A number of US businesses, including The New York Times, have decided not to participate in the conference as a result of the Khashoggi case.
"A lot of people are going over to the investment conference," Mr Trump said. "We'll see what happens. Maybe some won't be going. We'll make that determination very soon."
This week, Mr Trump explained that he did not want to jeopardise lucrative US defense contracts with Saudi Arabia over the case. He disclaimed responsibility by noting that the disappearance took place abroad and that Mr Khashoggi was "not a United States citizen".
Then on Friday, the president tweeted that he had been "working very hard" to win the release of a US pastor, Andrew Brunson, who had been detained in Turkey for 24 months before being freed Friday.
"And what about @Khashoggi #Jamal Khashoggi?!," the dissident's fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, shot back Friday in a tweet to Mr Trump.