Saudi, Bush to hold key talks today

Anti-terror aid likely, with some conditions

Terrorism Strikes America

The World

September 20, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASINGTON - Of all the countries being recruited for the American-led anti-terror coalition, few feel as strong a threat from Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network as Saudi Arabia.

Bin Laden, a Saudi exile who wants to oust American forces from the Persian Gulf region, also has the stated objective of overthrowing the ruling House of Saud.

So when the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al Faisal, meets President Bush at the White House today, the solidarity he expresses will be genuine.

Soon after three hijacked airliners slammed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon last week, Saudi Arabia declared, "We grieve with America, whose homeland was attacked by these shameless terrorists," and pledged to cooperate "in every matter conducive to reveal the identity of the perpetrators of this criminal act and bring them to justice."

But the kingdom is buffeted by the region's powerful anti-American currents and will not cooperate with Bush's declared war on terrorism without setting conditions, regional specialists say.

In the past, its assistance in tracking down terrorists has been spotty. And much of the help this time may be given quietly.

With the world's largest proven oil reserves, Saudi Arabia is vital to the West's economic well-being. Its relationship with the United States is based on mutual need: The kingdom helps keep oil prices relatively stable in return for American protection.

Prince Saud's visit is cloaked in unusually tight security. The time and location of his arrival were not announced, and the Saudi Embassy's spokesman wasn't told where the delegation was staying.

The meetings will be important in helping the United States map out strategy against bin Laden's network and in bestowing Arab and Muslim legitimacy on a campaign whose targets are likely to be bin Laden and the Taliban government in Afghanistan.

Saudi Arabia holds a singular place in the Muslim world as the nation that welcomes more than a million pilgrims annually to Islam's holiest shrines.

Topping the list of American requests will likely be military cooperation in a U.S.-led attack on bin Laden's bases and perhaps against the Taliban. Gaining permission for U.S. warplanes to fly in Saudi airspace is a key issue.

"You can't get there from here without Saudi flight clearance," said Chas. W. Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

Saudis can provide useful intelligence and, perhaps, criminal evidence. Bin Laden, born to a family of wealthy contractors, once recruited and raised funds for Muslim militants sent to fight Soviets forces in Afghanistan, with Saudi and U.S. blessing.

As a continuing threat to the royal family, he is a constant target of Saudi intelligence collection. "The only people who can chase down connections [in Saudi Arabia] are the Saudis," said Freeman.

But assistance will not be automatic. Before they endorse U.S. military action, the Saudis will demand "persuasive proof" that bin Laden was behind last week's attacks, Freeman said.

Unlike the Taliban, who also are demanding proof, the Saudis would probably be satisfied with evidence given to them privately. The Saudis will want Bush to gather broad international support and get at least acquiescence from Egypt and other Arab states, Freeman added.

Leaving the State Department last night after meeting with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, the prince said: "We can't fight terrorism by being vengeful. We can fight terrorism by being clear-headed, to identify the guilty and pursue them mercilessly until we bring them to justice. So, it is not vengeance that the world wants; it is justice that the world wants.

"It is going to be a long fight, a difficult fight, but a fight that we cannot afford to lose, and we must make sure that we win," he added.

He said the Saudis would help track down money sent to bin Laden's organization from Saudi bank accounts. The Saudis want the Bush administration to protect Arabs in the United States from discrimination and hate crimes.

Anxious about sparking domestic unrest, Saudi Arabia is wary of putting its close ties to the United States on public display. While the Palestinian intifada was raging, gathering strong popular support in the kingdom, Crown Prince Abdullah refused to come to Washington to meet Bush.

After the Khobar Towers bombing that killed 19 U.S. servicemen in 1996, the Saudis refused to allow the FBI to question witnesses in the kingdom and insisted on leading the probe themselves.

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