Saudi King Declines to Receive Iraqi Leader

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 29, 2007

In a serious rebuff to U.S. diplomacy, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has refused to receive Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on the eve of a critical regional summit on the future of the war-ravaged country, Iraqi and other Arab officials said yesterday.

The Saudi leader's decision reflects the growing tensions between the oil-rich regional giants, the deepening skepticism among Sunni leaders in the Middle East about Iraq's Shiite-dominated government, and Arab concern about the prospects of U.S. success in Iraq, the sources said. The Saudi snub also indicates that the Maliki government faces a creeping regional isolation unless it takes long-delayed actions, Arab officials warn.

For the United States, the Saudi cold shoulder undermines hopes of healing regional tensions between Sunni- and Shiite-dominated governments and producing a new spirit of cooperation on Iraq at the summit, to be held Thursday and Friday in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, the sources warn.

The Bush administration has invested significantly in the Egypt meeting, which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will attend. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said in a television interview last Thursday that the United States holds a "lot of hope" that the conference will serve as a catalyst for garnering regional and international support for solving Iraq's problems.

David Satterfield, the State Department's coordinator for Iraq, has been in the region for two weeks trying to broker behind-the-scenes agreements in the run-up to the summit. A debt-relief accord for Iraq is expected to be signed on the first day, and discussions among Iraq's neighbors are scheduled for the second day.

The official reason for the Saudi decision, Iraqi officials said, is that the king's schedule is full. But sources involved in the negotiations say the king is increasingly unhappy that Maliki is not doing more on reconciliation, despite pressure from the Arab world, the United States and other nations.

Saudi Arabia, ruled by a Sunni royal family, is concerned about the growing influence of Shiite-ruled Iran. The kingdom, guardian of Islam's holiest sites and birthplace of one of its most conservative ideologies, has been playing a more prominent role in regional affairs, so its snub is likely to resonate throughout the Middle East, Arab sources say.

Since taking office a year ago, Maliki's government has made repeated promises about reaching out to Iraq' s Sunni minority, addressing controversial laws and reconciling politically to end escalating sectarian tensions. But Sunni governments charge that nothing has been done. Arab diplomats said on Saturday that they had hoped that Maliki would come to the conference with a list of steps already taken, but that instead he will offer only more promises.

Maliki has visited the kingdom since taking office, but it was a ceremonial "get acquainted" meeting. He wanted a second meeting to address growing differences, Iraqi sources said.

The Saudi decision follows Abdullah's statement at an Arab League summit a month ago that the U.S. presence in Iraq is an "illegitimate occupation."

Before the conference, Saudi Arabia agreed to forgive 80 percent of Iraq's debt, which was accrued under Saddam Hussein. Much of it dates to Iraq's war against Iran in the 1980s. Washington and Baghdad had hoped that the kingdom would forgive all of it. Arab sources say Iraq may not get the degree of debt relief that it had expected.

The Saudi snub comes amid indications from Iranian officials that Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki might not attend the summit -- which could undermine U.S. hopes of a potential meeting between Rice and her Iranian counterpart.

Last week, Rice appealed to Mottaki to come to Egypt, saying a boycott would be a "missed opportunity." During talks in Ankara, Turkey, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana appealed to Iranian national security adviser Ali Larijani to send a top official to Egypt. Iran said a final decision will be made on Monday, but initial indications are that Tehran may send a lower-level foreign ministry official, according to Iranian sources.

Iraqi sources said Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul is unlikely to attend the summit because he is now the ruling-party candidate for president.

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