- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 10, 2002

The United States is debating whether to place Saudi Arabia on a blacklist of "countries of particular concern" for its restrictions on religious freedom, raising the prospect of sanctioning a potential ally in a war with Iraq.
The country was already included in a list of nations that show "hostility toward minority or non-approved religions" in the 2002 Report on International Religious Freedom released by the State Department on Monday.
"Freedom of religion does not exist in Saudi Arabia," said the report, which is mandated under a 1998 law.
The report's finding could now provide the basis for placing Saudi Arabia on a second list of "countries of particular concern" for which sanctions are mandatory.
"Saudi Arabia is a country that will be considered, given what's in the report," said Jeff Jamison of the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.
He said a decision would be made in "the coming weeks or months."
The timing could coincide with final planning for any military assault on the regime of Saddam Hussein, which most analysts expect to come early next year.
Human rights groups have long demanded that Saudi Arabia be listed among the world's worst violators of religious freedom, and some Bush administration officials are known to favor such action.
At present, the blacklist includes China, Iran, Iraq, Burma, North Korea and Sudan.
"Sometimes close allies are countries that we have real problems with," said John Hanford, U.S. ambassador for international religious freedom, at a news briefing Monday while announcing the release of the report.
"We press strongly our friends and our allies on this issue. There are an ally or two that we could view as candidates for countries of particular concern status, and we're going to take these very seriously," he said.
"Of course, we have in the back of our minds the ones that are on the cusp."
Asked whether Saudi Arabia was one of those countries, he said that was "something that we're going to have to consider very seriously."
But, he added, "you don't find the numbers of religious prisoners and you don't find the brutality on a regular basis that you do in some of the other countries that are" deemed countries of particular concern.
Adel al Jubeir, a senior Saudi diplomat, visited the State Department last week to discuss the report.
Officials at the Saudi Embassy would not immediately comment on the developments.
Saudi Arabia follows the Wahhabi branch of Islam and "practices contrary to this interpretation are suppressed," the report said.
Monday's report highlighted discrimination against the country's Shi'ite minority and detailed the detentions of Christians, the confiscation or censoring of Bibles, and the harassment and assault of citizens and foreigners by the country's religious police and vigilantes.
U.S.-Saudi relations have been strained since the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon. Riyadh did not at first acknowledge that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis.
Washington would like to have Saudi support for the expected military action against Iraq. Including Saudi Arabia on the blacklist could sour relations further and undermine Arab support for U.S. action against Baghdad.
One U.S. official said in an interview that Saudi cooperation with the United States could take one of two forms.
Less likely is the possibility that the Saudis will allow the United States full use of its territory for troops and support operations. More likely is a "soft yes" in which they would make airspace available and their "junior partners" in the Gulf Cooperation Council would provide bases for U.S. troops.
Riyadh wields considerable influence in the Gulf Cooperation Council, which comprises Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.
Qatar has agreed to allow U.S. troops access to its military facilities in a potential war with Iraq.
The U.S. 5th Fleet is based in Bahrain.

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