- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 22, 2006

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Iran yesterday offered to finance a Hamas-run Palestinian Authority and Saudi Arabia said it would continue to send aid to the new government, despite a U.S. appeal to cut off assistance until Hamas recognizes Israel.

The developments were a setback for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is seeking a united front against Hamas on a three-nation trip to the Middle East.

Iran’s announcement came during a visit to Tehran of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who is touring countries in the region in search of financial support.

“We will definitely provide financial aid to this government so that they can stand up against the oppression of America,” Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, was quoted as saying by the semiofficial Iranian Students’ News Agency.

“We hope that the new Palestinian government overcomes its current problems with the help of Islamic countries, including Iran,” Mr. Larijani said.

The Saudis, who have yet to invite Hamas to their country, were more reserved than the Iranians. A senior State Department official said they privately told Miss Rice that they might divert the $15 million a month they send the Palestinian Authority so that it goes to President Mahmoud Abbas’ office.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal was vague about direct support for a Hamas-led government, although he included aid for infrastructure projects together with humanitarian assistance.

“We think it would be the ultimate of irony that, at the time when we need to take care of these people who are seeking peace, that we shall fall short of doing so,” Prince Saud said at a press conference with Miss Rice.

“How do we distinguish between humanitarian and non-humanitarian aid? Infrastructure project or a humanitarian aid projects? They need both,” he said. “And that is why we are continuing to help the Palestinians.”

The senior State Department official said it was unlikely that the United States would continue to finance Mr. Abbas’ office because it would be part of a Hamas-run Palestinian Authority. Mr. Abbas is the leader of the rival Fatah party of the late Yasser Arafat.

The United States considers any support for a terrorist group, such as Hamas, a criminal activity.

At breakfast in Cairo earlier yesterday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told Miss Rice that his government would be able to persuade Hamas to make peace with Israel. Mr. Mubarak asked that Hamas be given a chance.

Miss Rice told reporters in Riyadh that she found some of the Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad “personally offensive” but defended freedom of speech and said that some of the reaction to them has been “wrong.” She also urged Muslims to speak out as passionately when they see other religions as the target of attacks.

“There have often been in various parts of the world statements or pictures or cartoons that have been offensive to many different religions, and I hope that across all lines people will seek to respect one another’s religious traditions and one another’s religious sensitivities,” she said.

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