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Saudis Begin Talks on Opening Embassy in Iraq

By Robin Wright and Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 1, 2007; 11:50 AM


JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia, Aug. 1 -- Saudi Arabia announced Wednesday that it has begun talks with Iraq about opening an embassy in Baghdad, a move that could be a major boost to U.S. reconciliation efforts. The Sunni-led kingdom has long resisted appearing to bolster the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.

After talks with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal also said the kingdom is prepared to consider participating in the international meeting President Bush announced last month to push for Arab-Israeli peace. Saudi participation is widely considered essential for any U.S.-orchestrated meeting to be considered legitimate in the Arab world, since Saudi Arabia is the author of the Arab League peace initiative as well as the guardian of the Islamic world's holiest sites.

"We are interested in a peace conference that deals with substantive matters of peace, issues of real substance, not non-substantive issues," Saud said. "If that does so, that becomes of great interest to Saudi Arabia. . . . We would look very closely and very hard at attending."

After listening to Rice's explanation of U.S. expectations for Bush's initiative, Saud said the kingdom sees "several positive solutions for a sustainable Palestinian state, dismantling [Jewish] settlements and solving the problems of Palestinian refugees."

But the conditional Saudi acceptance also will force the U.S. officials to ensure that the meeting is more than what Saud called a "photo opportunity." The Arab world has been highly skeptical of the Bush administration's commitment, given repeated unfulfilled pledges to jumpstart the moribund peace process, and that Bush has only 18 months left in office.

Rice and Gates are on a joint trip to the region this week to discuss potential sales of arms to countries in the region, the perceived threat from Iran and how to get Palestinian-Israeli peace talks back on track after a violent political split between the two main Palestinian factions. The secretaries urged eight Arab governments to do more to end the political and military tensions between Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites.

The Saudi announcement about possibly opening an embassy comes after resisting U.S. pressure for both political and security reasons for four years -- as have most Arab states. Only Jordan maintains an embassy in Iraq, while Egypt has a diplomatic mission but no diplomats in Baghdad after its ambassador was murdered. U.S. officials hope that other Sunni governments will follow the Saudi example.

A senior State Department official acknowledged that serious differences remain between Saudi Arabia and Iraq. King Abdullah has refused to allow Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to visit because the kingdom is deeply suspicious that Iran has ties to many Iraqi officials and militias.

"They have real concerns about the Maliki government and they haven't seen change," a senior State Department official traveling with Rice told reporters on her plane. He said he expects the kingdom to send a delegation to Baghdad to discuss an embassy soon, noting that the Saudis would be major targets in Iraq in light of the sectarian divide.

But the underlying tensions between the United States and Saudi Arabia were still evident during the Rice-Gates visit, as the Saudi foreign minister expressed anger at recent public criticism from Washington's U.N. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, that the oil-rich kingdom was not doing enough to help with reconciliation in Iraq.

"I was astounded by what he said, especially since we had never heard from him when he was here," Saud told reporters. Saudi Arabia's top diplomat countered that Iraq was not doing enough to help Saudi Arabia because extremists are filtering from Iraq into the kingdom.

Rice flew on to Jerusalem, where she began talks with Israeli officials. In a press appearance with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Rice said she was "encouraged" by what she heard across the region.

Gates flew on to Kuwait.

Saudis Begin Talks on Opening Embassy in Iraq -  Source

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