JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (AFP) -Saudi Arabia said on Wednesday it will send a diplomatic mission to Baghdad to explore reopening its embassy but rejected as “astounding” US criticism it was not doing enough to help stabilise Iraq.
Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal charged at a press conference with the visiting US secretaries of state and defence that Iraq was not doing enough to control its borders and prevent militants from moving into Saudi territory.
Saud was asked about recent criticism by the US ambassador to the United Nations and ex-envoy to Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, who said Saudi Arabia was undermining stability in Iraq by withholding support for the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
“I was astounded by what he said, especially since we had never heard from him this criticism when he was here,” Saud said.
The signs of discord came at a news conference after talks with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and US Defence Secretary Robert Gates that covered a range of security issues from Iraq to Iran and US arms sales to the kingdom.
The rare joint visit came amid growing US-Saudi friction even as the United States is preparing a 20-billion-dollar arms package for the Saudis to counter what Washington sees as a growing threat from Shiite Iran.
Prince Saud described the talks as “effective and positive and were frank as they always are.”
Rice said: “We are good friends, We are allies. We’ve been so for decades. It doesn’t mean there won’t be disagreements about policies, tactics.
“But the fact is this is a relationship that allows us to talk about the most difficult and most sensitive issues in a way that is respectful and friendly.”
Prince Saud said Riyadh will send a diplomatic mission to Baghdad to examine the possibility of reopening its embassy, a move that would mark a boost of ties between the Sunni authorities in the regional powerhouse and the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.
Rice welcomed the news, saying Washington had encouraged neighbouring states to develop diplomatic relations with the Maliki government, and that it was “extremely important in affirming its identity in this part of the world.”
But Saud rejected reports of US complaints it has not done enough to stem the flow of Saudis going to Iraq to fight US-led forces, and may even be funding Sunni insurgent groups.
“All that we can do to protect the borders here and Iraq we have been doing. I think what is needed is for action on the other side,” he said.
“The traffic of terrorists I can assure is truly more from this side coming to us from Iraq, rather than going from us to Iraq,” he said, adding that Saudi Arabia had asked for closer coordination with US forces.
“We for our part perceive all factions, whether Sunnis or Shiites, we perceive them only as Iraqis,” he said. “And we will work with anybody who is working for the unity and territorial integrity of Iraq.”
Whether the 158,000 US troops in Iraq should be withdrawn was, he said, “completely up to the Iraqis and the United States.”
Asked about growing US opposition to the war, Gates said that four years and more than 3,000 dead in Iraq have been “very painful for the American people.”
“There has been concern at the slow pace at which the political leadership has approached reconciliation while these sacrifices were being made,” he said.
“By the same token, I think there is an appreciation that the United States must not take any action as we go forward that is significant, that is destabilising.”
Gates said part of the reason for his visit was to explore opportunities to enhance security cooperation with the Saudis, alluding to the huge new arms package that US officials say is in the works.
From Saudi Arabia, Rice was heading for Jerusalem for talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials aimed at advancing peace efforts, while Gates was going to Kuwait.
Saud said his country, which does not have diplomatic relations with Israel, plans to attend an international Middle East peace conference called for later this year by US President George W. Bush.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert — his ratings languishing in single digits — is expected to tell Rice he would like a “diplomatic breakthrough” to show he is making progress on the stalled peace process.