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 financiers. "I'm certain the Saudi government can do better," Rice said at a news 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 Saudi Arabia. Fifteen of the 19 men who carried out the 2001 attacks were Saudi citizens, and the oil-rich kingdom is the birthplace of al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. U.S. concerns deepened after al Qaeda gunmen attacked the U.S. Consulate last December in this Red Sea commercial center, killing five non-American consulate employees and causing extensive damage to the building.
The State Department has issued a warning against travel to the kingdom by U.S. citizens because radicals have targeted hotels, housing compounds, transportation and businesses used by Westerners. Movement of U.S. diplomats is now heavily restricted, officials here say.
Congressional criticism of Saudi Arabia has been particularly harsh. "We can't continue this sort of cat-and-mouse game that has characterized the relationship," Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said at a Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday. At the same session, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said Washington was "far too cozy" with a country whose citizens were responsible for the deadliest attack ever on U.S. soil.
After Rice's talks here, the Saudi foreign minister said the kingdom was "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 the late King Faisal, noted that Saudi Arabia has outlawed incitement and cracked down on Saudi financing destined for militant groups 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," Faisal said, adding that the news media were partially responsible for image problems.
The goal of the dialogue is to launch institutions and meetings every six months at senior levels to address problems that now rely heavily on personal relationships and ad-hoc contacts to resolve, according to Saudi and U.S. officials.
Both countries want to revive the kind of partnership set up by Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger in the early 1970s that covered a wide variety of topics, such as military planning and energy policy.
But noticeably missing from the dialogue are the issues of political reform and democracy, which are at the top of Washington's foreign policy agenda but are the most politically sensitive issues in the Persian Gulf nation. Six new U.S.-Saudi groups will instead focus on counterterrorism, military affairs, energy, business, education and human development, and consular affairs.
On other issues, the Saudi foreign minister said his fear that Iraq would disintegrate into civil war had recently "eased." Saudi Arabia, a Sunni-ruled country with a sometimes restive Shiite minority, is now pinning hopes for Iraq's inclusion of its Sunni Muslim minority on a national reconciliation conference to be held in Cairo on Saturday, a month before Iraqi elections for a permanent government.
The Arab League conference was a Saudi idea, based on the government's role in bringing rival Lebanese factions together in 1989 in the Taif accord that ended their 15-year civil war, a 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 failing to cooperate with a U.N. investigation into the assassination in February of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, the country's leading reformer.
En route later to Jerusalem, Rice criticized Syria for pressing charges against Kamal Labwani, a democracy activist who was arrested last week after returning to Damascus following meetings with senior White House officials. Labwani was charged 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.
At a Brookings Institution event in Jerusalem, Rice blasted Iran's president for calling for Israel's destruction. "No civilized nation should have a leader who wishes or hopes or desires or considers it a matter of policy to express that another country should be pushed into the sea. It is simply unacceptable in the international system," she said.
Rice also acknowledged the difficulties of promoting political reform in the Islamic world. "We are not naive about the pace, or the difficulty, of democracy change," Rice said. "But we know that the longing for democratic change is deep and urgently felt."