Washington, Riyadh Officials Work to Repair Public rift.(WORLD)

Article excerpt

Byline: David R. Sands, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

U.S. and Saudi officials are working overtime to patch up a very public breach following a summer of strains over Iraq, Israel and the war on terrorism.

But the exercise in diplomatic damage control - including a chummy family visit yesterday by the Saudi ambassador to the Texas ranch of President Bush and Mr. Bush's declaration Monday of an enduring friendship with the oil-rich desert kingdom - has not been able to stifle skeptical voices on both sides.

Saudi Arabia's leading newspaper recently called for a "national dialogue" on the future of U.S.-Saudi ties, an alliance that dates back seven decades.

The dialogue is needed, the Al Riyadh newspaper said, "because we are getting repeated signals from Washington that they no longer see our relations in the same way."

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday that "while we don't necessarily agree on every issue, overall we have a very solid relationship with Saudi Arabia."

"We are cooperating and working with the Saudi government in the fight against terrorism in all its aspects, especially in areas involving finance, legal matters and investigations," Mr. Boucher said.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal observed, "Unfortunately, there are certain departments who are trying to raise doubts about the strong historical ties between our two countries. I am confident they will not succeed."

To U.S. skeptics, Saudi Arabia is a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism that produced an estimated 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers and about one-third of the prisoners from the Afghanistan war being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

They say Riyadh blocked the use of U.S. military bases in Saudi Arabia for the Afghan campaign and earlier this month vetoed any use of the bases for a prospective war against Iraq.

"The current Saudi regime," wrote William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and an influential voice among conservative foreign-policy analysts, "is part of the problem, not part of the solution."

Saudi Arabia has also taken the lead in rallying other Arab governments to oppose a military strike against Baghdad, worried that an attack could plunge the entire region into chaos and even undermine their own rule at home.

Some U.S. analysts believe thatat least senior Saudi officials secretly retain ties to the al Qaeda network of Saudi-born terrorist Osama bin Laden.

For their part, Saudi diplomats complain that their contributions to the war on terrorism, in the face of strong domestic opposition, have been overlooked.

They say the Bush administration's public tilt toward Israel in the Middle East peace process has greatly complicated the Saudis' own diplomatic efforts. …