Saudis say no to Iraq war despite talks with Bush

Ambassador says country will not cooperate in a strike against Hussein


CRAWFORD, Texas - President Bush told Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States yesterday that Saddam Hussein was "a menace and a threat" to his Middle East neighbors and the United States. But after a meeting that lasted several hours, Saudi officials said their position was unchanged - that war was not acceptable, and they would not cooperate in any military action.

Bush's meeting with Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the longtime Saudi ambassador and a friend of the Bush family since before the Persian Gulf war in 1991, followed a speech by Vice President Dick Cheney on Monday in which he made the strongest case yet that military action was the only realistic choice to remove Hussein from power.

But the White House said that Bandar was told by Bush that he had made no decision about whether the United States should proceed with a military overthrow of the Iraqi government.

A few administration officials - including some who fear that administration hawks are trying to press the president into making a decision - suggested privately that the vehemence of Cheney's language had surprised them.

Bandar visited Crawford without making any public comments, and reporters were kept miles from the session. But after it was over, a Saudi spokesman, Adel al-Jubeir, made the rounds of television shows and reporters to make it clear that the Saudi position about how to deal with Hussein was unchanged.

"There is a process under way with the U.N. to bring the inspectors back in," he said, speaking in Washington. "If it is successful, we can achieve our objectives without firing a single bullet or losing a single life.

"There is no country I know of supporting the use of force in Iraq at this time," he added, and said that "the rhetoric about using force is way ahead of the policy."

It was unclear last night whether Cheney's comments on Monday meant the administration was no longer interested in getting weapons inspectors back into Iraq as the Saudis and others insist. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John D. Negroponte, said yesterday that the United States was interested if inspectors had "unfettered and unconditional access," though he cautioned that "Iraq's track record in the past in this regard has not been a particularly encouraging one."

"But if they were to cooperate fully with an international inspection regime," he said, "that could be an important part of the resolution of this question of disarming Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction."

The State Department - where many administration officials argue that it would be deeply damaging to U.S. interests to begin military action without the support of European and Arab allies - made it clear yesterday that it is not trying to rally support behind a war plan.

"There are no war drums to beat," said Richard Boucher, the State Department spokesman. He added that within the administration, "there has been a certain amount of debate and discussion about how to deal with" the threat Iraq poses. "But as the White House has made clear, the president has not decided. So there's no option to enlist people's support for, there's no war drum to beat, there's no particular action that we're trying to sell right now."

Yesterday's session at Bush's 1,600-acre ranch was clearly part of a broader effort to repair strained relations with the Saudis. On Monday, the Saudis revealed yesterday, Bush called Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto Saudi leader, to assure him that the administration did not agree with a private sector analyst who urged the Defense Policy Board, an advisory panel to the Pentagon, to recommend that Saudi Arabia be subjected to sanctions if it does not crack down on terrorism. The administration has been disavowing the recommendation since it became public.

Several contentious issues were discussed in the hourlong private meeting between Bush and Bandar, who is considered one of the best-connected ambassadors in Washington.

The White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said that Bush raised a specific case involving child abduction, urging Saudi Arabia to free Amjad Radwan, a 19-year-old American woman who was brought to Saudi territory by her father as a child and is not permitted to leave without her father's written permission. Saudi courts almost always rule in favor of Saudi fathers in child custody cases such as this one that involve non-Saudi mothers. But until yesterday Bush had never raised the subject directly.

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