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White House May Press Saudis on Anti-Terror Fight

November 27, 2002|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration is considering tougher policies against Saudi Arabia in an effort to force Saudi leaders to do more to crimp the flow of money to terrorist organizations, officials said Tuesday.

The discussions come as members of Congress have escalated criticism of the Saudi kingdom, accusing the royal family of inadequate measures to crack down on militants and cut their financial lifelines.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer acknowledged the criticism but insisted that the administration stands by its Saudi allies.

"The president believes that Saudi Arabia has been a good partner in the war against terrorism," Fleischer said. "But even a good partner like Saudi Arabia can do more in the war against terrorism."

Fleischer said the administration had discussed names of individuals and charities suspected of terrorist ties with Saudi officials. But he denied a report in the Washington Post that the administration had prepared a list of suspects for Saudi Arabia and would issue an ultimatum that the kingdom act in 90 days or face punitive U.S. measures.

"There is no substance to these reports," said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who was traveling in Mexico.

Fleischer said an interagency group on ending financial support for terrorists has been working to devise new measures to pressure the Saudis, but those discussions are still preliminary.

The group's efforts have "not even yet risen up to the point of making recommendations," Fleischer said.

Saudi officials insist they are doing all they can.

"If there is money coming from Saudi Arabia, we want to shut it off. But we have to start with some facts before we act," said Saudi embassy spokesman Nail al Jubeir. "We have to have some proof."

Experts say stemming the flow of Saudi money to terrorists is difficult, in part because it often takes the form of charitable donations by individuals and flows through informal banking organizations.

"It's individuals. It's not a question of the nation," Fleischer said.

Relations with Saudi Arabia have been tense since last year's Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, in part because 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals. Until then, Saudi Arabia was one of only two countries that recognized the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which harbored Al Qaeda leaders.

In recent days, Saudi officials have acknowledged that the wife of the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Princess Haifa al Faisal, sent money to a Saudi man in San Diego who was in contact with two of the Sept. 11 hijackers. The princess believed the money was being used to treat the man's wife for a thyroid condition.

In Saudi Arabia, a government spokesman, Adil Jubeir, said that if any of the princess' money given in good faith as charity had reached the hijackers, it could only be because the princess had been tricked. He said some Saudi critics in Washington seemed less interested in the truth than in scoring "political brownie points" against the Saudi regime.

Around the Middle East, Arab commentators charged that the focus on the princess' indirect link to the hijackers is part of a campaign by some U.S. conservatives, frustrated by Arab resistance to Israel, to smear even the most pro-Western Arab governments.

Observers say the Bush administration feels under pressure to show that it is leaning hard enough on the Saudis.

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Times staff writers John Daniszewski in Qatar, Doyle McManus in Washington and Paul Richter in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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