- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 9, 2003

WASHINGTON, Feb. 9 (UPI) — Saudi Arabia's leaders in the last month have made far-reaching decisions to prepare for an era without U.S. troops but with democratic reforms that could reduce the influence of a conservative clergy, The New York Times reported Sunday.

Senior members of the ruling royal family told the Times their decisions grew out of an internal debate over the Kingdom's future and have not yet been publicly announced.

But these princes say Crown Prince Abdullah will ask President Bush to withdraw all American armed forces from the kingdom as soon as the campaign to disarm Iraq has concluded.

Since terrorists attacked the United States Sept. 11, 2001, many American politicians have urged Saudi Arabian leaders to deal with influences in the mosques and in the streets which helped produce the conditions that helped make 15 of the 19 hijackers Saudis.

Until Abdullah actually issues formal decrees, it remains to be seen whether he will actually ask for the departure of U.S. troops in the country since the Gulf War.

Ending the presence of foreign — especially American — forces on Saudi soil has been one major goals of Osama bin Laden, the now disowned scion of one of the kingdom's wealthiest families and his followers in al Qaida.

The goal of political reform would be the gradual implementation of a fully democratic national assembly although a full role for women is probably not part of the plan, the Times said.

If U.S. forces take away any weapons of mass destruction from Iraq, the need for a protective U.S. force will have disappeared, according to Saudi thinking, while increasing internal pressure for them to leave.

Even if American troops did leave, Saudi and American officials told the Post, military cooperation would probably continue.

Prince Sultan, who family members say has been privately designated as the next crown prince by Abdullah, was described by a family member as "moderately against" the U.S. departure or, stating it another way, "very reluctantly for it."

American specialists on Saudi Arabia said it appeared that Abdullah is seeking a national consensus to maneuver around the most conservative elements of the clergy by appealing for agreement to the influential Saudi business establishment, the military and tribal leaders.

The aim, Saudi officials said, is to create an Islamic parliament that would be able to make social policy — even addressing basic questions like whether women can drive — instead of ceding that authority to a puritanical religious establishment.

Saudi Arabia purged itself of foreign military forces in 1963, when King Faisal ordered the Strategic Air Command squadron of nuclear-armed bombers to evacuate the base they had maintained at Dhahran since the 1950s.

Although King Faisal told President John F. Kennedy that he would create an assembly whose appointed deputies would advise the throne, but not make laws. nothing came of the proposal until 1992, when King Fahd finally carried it out.

The Times said that whether Abdullah can now push through deeper political reforms is still unclear. But the decision by some family members to make the debate public appeared at least in part intended to nudge him along.

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