Saudis May Attend Mideast Conference

By Robin Wright and Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 2, 2007

JERUSALEM, Aug. 1 -- Following U.S. pledges of major new arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Wednesday won only heavily conditioned promises from the oil-rich kingdom to consider attending a Middle East peace conference and to explore opening an embassy in Baghdad.

Saudi participation is widely considered essential for any U.S.-orchestrated international conference to be considered legitimate in the Arab world, because Saudi Arabia is the author of an Arab League peace proposal for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as the guardian of the Islamic world's holiest sites.

"We are interested in a peace conference that deals with substantive matters of peace, issues of real substance, not non-substantive issues," the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said at a news conference with Rice and Gates in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia. "If that does so, that becomes of great interest to Saudi Arabia. . . . We would look very closely and very hard at attending."

Even conditional Saudi acceptance will force the Bush administration to ensure that the meeting is more than what Saud called a "photo opportunity." The Arab world has been highly skeptical of the Bush administration's level of commitment, given repeated unfulfilled pledges to revive the moribund peace process and because President Bush has only 18 months left in office.

After listening to Rice's explanation of U.S. expectations for the conference, an initiative Bush announced in July, Saud said the kingdom sees "several positive solutions for a sustainable Palestinian state, dismantling [Jewish] settlements and solving the problems of Palestinian refugees."

"That's not a yes or a no, but it was an interesting and forward-leaning answer," said a senior State Department official traveling with Rice.

Saud also announced Wednesday that the kingdom has begun talks with Iraq about opening an embassy in Baghdad. For political and security reasons, it had resisted years of U.S. pressure to do so -- as have most Arab states. The Sunni-led kingdom has long been wary of taking a formal step that would bolster the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. Among Arab states, only Jordan maintains a full embassy in Iraq; Egypt has a diplomatic mission but no diplomats in Baghdad, following the assassination of its ambassador in July 2005.

In a sign of good intentions with Iraq, the foreign minister teased that Saudi Arabia had allowed the Iraqi team to beat the Saudis in the soccer finals of the Asian Cup on Sunday.

But a senior State Department official acknowledged that serious differences remain between Saudi Arabia and Iraq. King Abdullah has refused to allow Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to visit because the kingdom is deeply suspicious of the ties to Iran maintained by many Iraqi officials and militias. On Wednesday, the leading Sunni bloc in Iraq's government announced a partial withdrawal over its frustrations with Maliki's leadership.

The Saudis "have real concerns about the Maliki government and they haven't seen change," a senior State Department official traveling with Rice told reporters.

The underlying tensions between the United States and Saudi Arabia were evident when Saud expressed anger at recent public criticism from U.N. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad that the kingdom was not doing enough to help with reconciliation in Iraq. "I was astounded by what he said, especially since we had never heard from him when he was here," Saud said at the news conference.

He countered that Iraq was not doing enough to help Saudi Arabia because extremists from Iraq are filtering into the kingdom.

During their rare joint visit to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Rice and Gates discussed arms sales of at least $20 billion to Saudi Arabia and five Persian Gulf sheikdoms, as well as $13 billion in a 10-year package of military aid to Egypt.

The arms sales are already controversial in Washington, where Chairman Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) of the House Foreign Affairs Committee has moved to call for hearings with top officials from the State and Defense departments, according to Lantos's office.

But U.S. officials here said they came away encouraged by a joint statement with the eight Arab allies that they say broke new ground on key common interests. The Arab countries, also including Jordan, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman, blamed Iran for troubles in the region -- moving beyond the usual concern about the goals of that country's nuclear program. They also backed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in what U.S. officials say marks a move away from attempts to negotiate reconciliation between his Fatah faction and the armed Islamic movement Hamas.

A power-sharing agreement between the two factions, brokered by Saudi Arabia this year, disintegrated after Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in June. Hamas won January 2006 parliamentary elections in the West Bank and Gaza.

"We got a terrific statement" out of a Tuesday meeting between Rice and the foreign ministers of the eight governments, the senior official said. "The key Arab states are now on the record on key issues, especially on Iran."

Rice flew on to Jerusalem, where she began talks with Israeli officials. In an appearance with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Rice said she was "encouraged" by what she had heard across the region.

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