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September 24, 2001
Saudis Feeling the Pain of Giving Support to U.S
By PATRICK E. TYLER
WASHINGTON, Sept. 23 — The American announcement that it would use Saudi Arabia as a headquarters for air operations against Afghanistan has further strained relations between Washington and the conservative rulers in Riyadh. But senior administration officials said today that they remained confident that the Saudis would agree to provide critical bases for offensive operations.
Saudi leaders continue to voice public support in the struggle against terrorism, but are showing extreme sensitivity to launching military operations against another Muslim state from their territory, as they did during the Persian Gulf war in 1991.
Members of the Saudi royal family are also taking seriously threats against their rule from Osama bin Laden, an outcast from one of Saudi Arabia's most prominent families. From exile he has called on Muslims to overthrow the monarchy for allowing in "infidel" forces. Several terrorists who struck the United States carried Saudi documents, though many may be forged.
Some officials say that the Saudis have privately offered millions of dollars to the Taliban rulers to expel or turn over Mr. bin Laden. The current crisis has caught the United States without a seasoned ambassador in the Saudi capital. Former Senator Wyche Fowler Jr., who served President Clinton, has departed, and the White House candidate to replace him, Robert W. Jordan, an oil industry lawyer and Bush family friend from Houston, was hastily nominated Sept. 12, the day after the attacks.
In the decade that has followed the war to roll back Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the Saudi royal family has become disenchanted with American mediation in the Arab-Israeli dispute and with American actions toward Iraq, where civilian suffering has stirred the emotions of many Arabs.
In recent days, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan — old friends from the gulf war — have been in contact by telephone, yet a significant level of uncertainty remains over the level of Saudi participation in the American-led military campaign. "They will do almost anything we ask them to do as long as we help to minimize the damage from their extremists," said one specialist.
The Pentagon announced last week that it was dispatching a top Air Force commander, Lt. Gen. Charles F. Wald, to Saudi Arabia to oversee air attacks against Afghanistan from a command post at the Prince Sultan Air Base at Al Kharj, about 70 miles outside Riyadh. The public announcement may have preceded any direct negotiation with the Saudis, several officials and specialists said. "I don't want to say," said one senior Defense Department official, "but my understanding is that it is still an open question."
Another senior Defense Department official said Saudi sensitivities were inflamed by news reports but expressed confidence that the Saudis would ultimately grant the access and military latitude that Washington seeks. United States military aircraft that take off daily from Saudi Arabia to enforce the no-flight zone in Iraq are used exclusively as patrol craft, under a longstanding agreement. If fired upon, the patrol fighters await American warplanes launched from aircraft carriers or bases outside Saudi Arabia to strike Iraqi targets.
Secretary Powell said today that an article in Saturday's issue of The Washington Post was incorrect in asserting that he was engaged in negotiations with the Saudis to change their policy banning offensive air operations from Saudi bases. On ABC's "This Week," Secretary Powell said he had yet to place "that kind of a demand on the Saudi leadership because nobody asked me to — there was no requirement to."
Saudi diplomacy is also not as American-centric as sometimes assumed in the Pentagon, experts pointed out. Prince Saud al-Faisal, the foreign minister, today conferred by telephone with Iran's foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, and afterward the Iranian news agency said the two men had called for "restraint by all countries of the world" in order to avoid "any hasty decision that would risk more innocent human lives."
With the ascension of Crown Prince Abdullah to the post of day-to- day ruler following the 1995 stroke that largely incapacitated King Fahd, the sympathies of the Saudi royal family have reflected Abdullah's closer attention to the mainstream Arab agenda of backing the Palestinian cause and relieving the suffering inflicted by a decade of sanctions in Iraq.
"He is consistently pro-American, but much less forgiving of the Israelis," said Charles W. Freeman Jr., ambassador to Riyadh during the 1991 war. But other currents in the royal family have been difficult to discern. One of them was the sudden removal this summer of Prince Turki al-Faisal, the kingdom's chief of intelligence for more than 20 years. He was replaced by Prince Nawaf bin Abdel Aziz, one of his uncles and brother to King Fahd.
"The Saudis have some reason to feel prickly about their sovereignty and about their public identification with the United States; the context is vastly different than it was during the gulf war," said Mr. Freeman, who was a senior Pentagon official in the Clinton administration.
"There could certainly be retaliation against Saudi Arabia" for participating in a new alliance, Mr. Freeman continued, "and by appearing to be insensitive to the fact that the Saudis are out there on the front line and saying that we will do what we please from their bases, we are increasing the likelihood and the ferocity of that retaliation."
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