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WAR WITH IRAQ

Saudi Arabia Criticizes U.S., Calls for a 'Breather'

March 23, 2003|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — This kingdom, deeply uneasy over the U.S. bombing campaign in Iraq, on Saturday called for a "breather" in the fighting and signaled that it will oppose an American military occupation government in Baghdad.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal, in remarks uncharacteristically outspoken in their criticism of U.S. policy in the region, said U.S. troops will be ill-equipped to govern a tribal and unruly Iraqi population in the wake of a collapse of the ruling Baath Socialist Party.

He predicted "instability" unless the United Nations steps in to help rebuild Iraq's governing structures.

"We have always said that whatever war will occur must have as its most important objective to keep the country intact, to keep order in place, and then the U.N. only would act against those who refuse to cooperate with the demilitarization," Saud told reporters.

"Now, you're facing a conflict that threatens to destroy the whole government. Who's going to run the government?" he said.

U.S. officials have enlisted retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner to act as interim civil administrator after the war in Iraq; to head a team of disaster relief specialists, civilian workers and Iraqi exiles that would rapidly move in; and, with the help of bureaucrats not loyal to the Baathist regime, to keep the machinery of government in operation.

State Department officials in Washington said they had "nothing to say at this time" about Saud's remarks, which also raised questions about how long America's Persian Gulf allies will maintain their uneasy support for the U.S. war effort.

Saudi Arabia, America's largest oil supplier and its most important ally in the gulf, has quietly allowed more than 5,000 troops to be stationed inside the kingdom at an air base that is providing much of the tactical control for the massive bombing campaign now underway in Iraq.

But the Saudi foreign minister's statements demonstrated how even some of America's closest allies in the region believe that the Bush administration is misguided in its belief that it can quickly prevail in the military conflict and work with Iraqi citizens, exiles and civil servants in the war's aftermath to set up a new democratic government.

Saudi Arabia has been more muted in its public protest over the Iraq conflict than other Arab countries, where thousands of protesters have demonstrated in the streets and clerics have issued furious denunciations. There have been no public protests in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, and clerics in Friday sermons this week stuck closer to religion than politics.

This is both because of this desert kingdom's long tradition of discussion, not protest, and because the Saudi government, seeing itself and its historic support for the U.S. as potential targets, has always moved quickly to silence radical dissidence.

Yet many Saudis have been traumatized by the scenes unfolding in Baghdad, as newspapers have carried such headlines as "Hell Rains Down on Iraqis" and "Baghdad Burns." Saudi citizens, from kiosk clerks to intellectuals, have been devastated at their inability to intervene.

"People ask what is going to be the effect of all this, and they look for something to happen," said a member of the Saudi royal family, who asked not to be identified. "I know for sure, each one of us is damaged inside. Humiliated. Depressed."

In central Riyadh's gold souk, or marketplace, a 48-year-old merchant who gave his name only as Saleh said sentiment in a kingdom historically friendly to the U.S. has done a quick about-face. "Any country invades another country, people will go against him," he said. "Saddam invaded Kuwait, and people were against him. Now America is invading Iraq? What do you expect?"

For its part, the Saudi government has possibly more to fear than any other country from instability in Iraq. Tribal conflicts, Sunni-Shiite rivalries and Iranian incursions could have ripple effects across the border in Saudi Arabia, where the royal family is working mightily to maintain political tranquillity atop the world's biggest oil reserves.

High unemployment, mounting public debt and Islamic unrest leave the kingdom keenly reluctant to open new political fault lines in the region.

As a result, the Saudi foreign minister devoted much of his time Saturday talking about the long-term governance of Iraq, even as he called for an immediate halt to the bombing to explore the prospects for a more peaceful conclusion.

"Stop the war. Let's sit down. Let's have a breather, after we have seen the destruction. Let's have diplomacy work," Saud said.

"Saddam Hussein now knows what his country faces if he doesn't come to the aid of his people," he said.

With Iraqi citizens poised to "sacrifice their lives in defense of the regime," the foreign minister added, perhaps Hussein "should also ask what sacrifices he can make to defend his country."

At the same time, he emphasized that "a speedy conclusion needs two parties, not just Iraq."

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