U.S., Saudi Arabia Inagurate New 'Strategic Dialogue'

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 13, 2005; 3:17 PM

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia, Nov. 13 -- With skepticism still deep on both sides four years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States and Saudi Arabia on Sunday inaugurated a new "strategic dialogue" to expand cooperation on six key issues, including terrorism and energy.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on Saudi Arabia to play a stronger role in confronting terrorist groups and their financing. "I'm certain the Saudi government can do better," Rice said at a joint press conference with Prince Saud Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister. "All of us can do better. But there is, I think, no lack of political will."

The Bush administration has been under pressure from both Republicans and Democrats to win greater cooperation from the oil-rich kingdom, home to al Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden and 15 of the 19 terrorists who carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. U.S. concerns deepened after an attack by al Qaeda gunmen last December on the U.S. consulate in this Red Sea commercial center, which killed five embassy employees and left extensive damage.

The State Department last week issued another warning against U.S. citizens traveling to the kingdom because militants are targeting hotels, housing compounds, transportation and businesses used by Westerners. Movement of U.S. diplomats is now heavily restricted, officials here say.

Congressional criticism has been particularly harsh. "We can't continue this sort of cat and mouse game that has characterized the relationship," Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl told a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting Tuesday. At the same session, Vermont Democrat Sen. Patrick Leahy said Washington is now "far too cozy" with a country whose citizens are responsible for the deadliest attack ever against the United States.

After Rice's talks here, the Saudi foreign minister said the kingdom is "fighting as hard as we can. I would dare anyone to say there is another country that is fighting terror as hard as we are." Faisal, the U.S.-educated son of a former king, noted that Saudi Arabia has outlawed incitement and cracked down on Saudi financing destined for militant groups both inside and outside the country.

"There is what I would call a misunderstanding about Saudi Arabia among the U.S. public, as there is a misunderstanding about the United States among the Saudi public. That is why we are trying to influence this," he said, adding that the media was partially responsible for image problems.

The goal of the dialogue, which emerged out of Saudi King Abdullah's visit to President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Tx., last April, is to launch institutions and regular meetings every six months at senior levels to address problems that now rely heavily on personal relationships and ad hoc contacts, according to Saudi and U.S. officials.

Both nations want to revive the kind of partnership set up by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the early 1970s on everything from joint military planning to energy policy -- an arrangement that was pivotal to their cooperation during the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, a senior Saudi official said Sunday. Coordinated Saudi funding and U.S. arms to the opposition mujaheddin "rolled back communism," the official said. The aim now is to work together to end terrorism, he added.

But noticeably missing from the dialogue are the issues of political reform and democracy, which top of Washington's foreign policy agenda but are the most politically sensitive matters in the Gulf nation. The six new U.S.-Saudi groups will instead focus on counterterrorism, military affairs, energy, business, education and human development, and consular affairs.

To underscore the friendship, the Saudi foreign minister presented Rice with a chocolate birthday cake inscribed to her and with the flags of both nations. The Saudi delegation then sang "Happy Birthday" to her, U.S. officials said. Rice turns 51 on Monday.

On other issues, the Saudi foreign minister said his unusually blunt warning about the disintegration of Iraq into civil war, expressed during a visit to Washington in September, has recently "eased." A Sunni-ruled nation with a sometimes restive Shiite minority, the kingdom is now pinning hopes for Iraq's inclusion of its Sunni minority on a national reconciliation conference scheduled to be held in Cairo Nov. 19 -- just a month before elections for a permanent government in Iraq.

The Arab League conference was a Saudi idea, based on its role in bringing rival Lebanese factions together in 1989 in the Taif accord that ended their 15-year civil war, the senior Saudi official said. A neighbor of Iraq, the desert kingdom has been wary that the emergence of a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad would shift the sectarian balance of a region long run largely by Sunnis.

On Syria, Rice blasted the government of President Bashar Assad for not cooperating with a U.N. investigation into the assassination in February of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, the country's leading reformer. Damascus has so far balked at allowing U.N. investigator Detlev Mehlis to question six top Syrian officials. "That's just not going to cut it," Rice told reporters.

En route later to Jerusalem, Rice criticized Syria for pressing charges against Kamal Labwani, a democracy activist who only last week was meeting senior White House officials before he returned to Damascus and was immediately arrested. Syria charged Labwani Sunday with fomenting sectarian riots, membership in an outlawed group and undermining national unity.

"This man who came to Europe and the United States to talk about a better future for his people is being punished and accused by the government rather than embraced for what change he could bring," Rice told reporters traveling with her.

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