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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ: TENSION BETWEEN ALLIES; VERDICT
FOR MARINE

Saudis rebut U.S. criticism over Iraq

Foreign minister says his nation does not turn a blind eye to militants.

August 02, 2007|Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writer

JIDDA, SAUDI ARABIA — Saudi Arabia's foreign minister gave voice Wednesday to simmering tensions between the desert kingdom and the Bush administration, publicly insisting that his country was doing all it could to block Saudi militants from crossing the border into Iraq as insurgents and saying he was "astounded" by recent criticism of its efforts from a senior U.S. official.

The comments by Saud al Faisal, made at a news conference while flanked by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, came during their high-profile visit aimed at pushing Saudi and other Sunni Arab allies to do more to help the beleaguered Shiite-dominated Iraqi government.

The relationship with Saudi Arabia, one the United States' most important in the region, has shown signs of strain over the situation in Iraq, most publicly in March when Saudi King Abdullah called the U.S. presence in Iraq an "illegal foreign occupation."

Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. envoy to Iraq who recently became the Bush administration's ambassador to the United Nations, hit back last month, writing in the New York Times that "some friends of the United States" that neighbor Iraq "are pursuing destabilizing policies" toward Baghdad.

Although Khalilzad did not mention Saudi Arabia by name, the comments were widely viewed as a swipe at the government in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.

"I was astounded by what he said, especially since we have never heard from him these criticisms when he was here," Faisal said, when asked by reporters about Khalilzad's comments. "I ascribed that to his being in the United Nations in New York and not in Iraq."

Faisal defended his country's record on limiting Saudis' entry to Iraq, where Iraqi officials say they make up nearly half of all foreigners fighting Iraqi and American-led security forces. He said Saudi Arabia was already doing "all that we can do" to block extremists traveling to Iraq.

Instead, he pointed the finger at Baghdad, saying a heavier flow of radicals was entering Saudi Arabia from Iraq.

"The traffic of terrorists, I can assure you, is more on this side, coming from Iraq than going from us to Iraq," he said. "This is one of the worries our government has."

Speaking at the news conference, Rice acknowledged differences on approaches to regional policy, but said the United States and Saudi Arabia remained close and were working toward the same goals.

"If there are problems the United States has with Saudi policy, we talk about it," she said. "If there are problems that Saudi Arabia has with American policy, we talk about it."

Rice said she was encouraged by Riyadh's decision to begin normalizing its relationship with Baghdad. Faisal said he would send a diplomatic mission to Baghdad to discuss opening an embassy, and Rice cited the move as an important step.

"This is something that we have encouraged," Rice said. "Normal relations between Iraq and its neighbors is extremely important in affirming its identity in this part of the world."

A senior Defense official who participated in talks with the Saudis said Faisal's concerns about radicals moving into Saudi Arabia from Iraq had not been raised before the news conference. The official said the Saudis, though frank in their private discussions, expressed a strong commitment to maintaining close ties to the U.S.

The joint visit by the two senior Bush administration officials began Tuesday in Egypt and ended Wednesday afternoon when Rice left for Israel and Gates continued on to Kuwait.

The official said King Abdullah, who received Rice and Gates at an extravagant dinner Tuesday night in the royal palace here, was particularly effusive in his discussion of the importance of bilateral relations. According to U.S. participants, the dinner was held in a grand hall of the palace with a mosaic-tiled swimming pool at its center and an aquarium that filled an entire wall and contained exotic fish and sharks. The sharks were fed by unseen caretakers periodically throughout the meal, one participant said.

The matter of Saudi fighters in Iraq has become one in a series of increasingly testy issues between the two countries. U.S. officials traveling to the region said they believed Saudi Arabia could do more to prevent the fighters from entering Iraq.

But the officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity when discussing private bilateral meetings, said most of the blame could be pinned on Syria, which allows foreigners to pass through Damascus, the capital, on their journey to Iraq.

"Can all these countries do more to help screen people from their countries going to [Iraq]?" asked another senior Defense official. "Absolutely, but we also realize the Damascus airport is the express lane."

U.S. officials have told Saudi officials that Baghdad has shown progress in persuading Shiite Muslim militias to stop attacking Sunnis.

At the news conference, Faisal said Saudi Arabia did not view its Iraq policies in sectarian terms.

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