- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 28, 2007

From combined dispatches

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi King Abdullah, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, yesterday slammed what he termed the “illegitimate foreign occupation” of neighboring Iraq and called for an end to the “unjust” U.S.-backed financial blockade of the Palestinian government.

In a rare public spat, both the White House and State Department quickly rejected the king’s description of the U.S. mission in Iraq. National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said flatly the king was “wrong” in questioning the legitimacy of the U.S. troop presence in Iraq.

Abdullah spoke at the opening of a two-day summit in Riyadh in which Arab leaders formally revived a 2002 Saudi peace plan, under which Arab governments would recognize Israel in return for the creation of a Palestinian state and Israeli concessions on borders, control of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees with claims on property inside Israel.

The king also pressed for the lifting of sanctions on the new unity Palestinian government, which includes the militant Hamas party. Saudi Arabia last month brokered a deal among warring Palestinian factions for the new government, but Israel and the United States still object to Hamas’ presence in the government.

But it was the king’s pointed words on Iraq that attracted attention, particularly as the Bush administration relies heavily on the oil-rich desert kingdom in its regional diplomacy. Some here said his words were a nod to Arab hard-liners deeply distrustful of the Bush administration.

“In beloved Iraq, blood flows between brothers in the shadow of an illegitimate foreign occupation and hateful sectarianism, threatening civil war,” Abdullah said.

Saying discord among Arab states had undermined their effectiveness, he added, “We will not allow forces from outside the region to determine the future of the region, and only the flag of Arabism will be raised on Arab soil.”

State Department spokesman Tom Casey said U.S. and allied forces were operating in Iraq at the invitation of Iraq’s own government, under a United Nations mandate that has been renewed a number of times.

“Certainly, there’s no question in our mind that our forces are there in a legal and legitimate capacity in every sense of the word,” Mr. Casey said.

Also attending the talks yesterday was U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

“The Arab peace initiative is one of the pillars for the peace process. … This initiative sends a signal that the Arabs are serious about achieving peace,” Mr. Ban told Arab leaders, according to an Arabic translation.

Palestinian envoy Jamal Shobaki said the leaders had agreed yesterday to endorse a set of resolutions influenced by the 2002 plan, which also calls for the creation of a Palestinian state and a “just solution” for Palestinians displaced in 1948.

Despite a long alliance based in large part on Saudi Arabia’s position as the world’s largest oil producer, U.S.-Saudi ties have been strained in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, and U.S. critics say the kingdom has not done enough to restrain Sunni fundamentalist movements that have bankrolled Islamist extremists around the Muslim world.

Riyadh, for its part, has watched with growing alarm the sectarian chaos in Iraq, the expanding regional influence of Shi’ite Iran, and the failure to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian question.

But Mr. Casey insisted yesterday that the United States has “very good and very strong relations” with Saudi Arabia, despite the king’s remarks.

“I don’t see anything that’s been reported on as fundamentally changing our good and long-standing relations with Saudi Arabia,” he said.

Meanwhile, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres said his country “has some disagreements” with key parts of the Arab peace plan, but called for direct negotiations to iron out differences.

“They can bring their positions and we will bring ours, and we can reach an agreement as we did with Egypt and Jordan” — the two Arab countries that officially recognize the Jewish state.

The summit is slated to create a series of “working groups” to sell the revived peace plan to the United States, the European Union and Israel. But Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal warned in an interview with a British newspaper that Israel should not expect any further concessions before talks begin.

If Israel balks, he said, “They will be putting their future not in the hands of the peacemakers but in the hands of the lords of war.”

Several world leaders attended the opening session in Riyadh. Among Arab heads of state, only Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has boycotted the summit.

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