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US 'Surprised' by Saudi Comments on American Role in Iraq


The Bush administration Thursday expressed surprise, and said it was seeking clarification, over remarks by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah at the Arab League summit that the United States role in Iraq was an "illegal foreign occupation." U.S. officials meanwhile are welcoming the Arab League's relaunch of its 2002 peace initiative for Israel. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Officials here are not depicting downplaying the remarks of the Saudi king as a problem in relations with Saudi Arabia, a key Middle East ally of the United States.

But they say they will contact the Saudi government over the comments, and are defending the legality of U.S. involvement in Iraq.

In a Senate Foreign Relations Committee appearance, Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, said the United States was "a little surprised" to see the remarks, and will ask for clarification.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said there was no reason to believe that King Abdullah has been misquoted in the comments he made to the Arab League summit on Wednesday, and that the U.S. interest in an explanation is understandable.

"We certainly had not seen that particular phrase before coming out, talking about illegal occupation," he said. "I think it only stands to reason that we are interested in understanding better what exactly King Abdullah meant by that phrase."

"We are operating under [U.N.] Security Council resolutions in Iraq, as well as with the invitation of the Iraqi government," he added.

McCormack said the United States and Saudi Arabia have a shared interest in an Iraq that maintains its territorial integrity and stability, and that one indication of Saudi support for that was its participation in the recent Iraqi "neighbors conference" in Baghdad, in which Iran also took part.

He also stressed what he termed the excellent personal relationship between King Abdullah and President Bush and said that overall ties between the two countries are good and sound.

McCormack welcomed the decision of the Arab League summit to relaunch the organization's 2002 Middle East peace initiative, which basically offers Israel normal relations with the Arab world if it returns to 1967 borders and reaches a two-state settlement with the Palestinians.

He reiterated the U.S. hope, expressed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on her just-completed trip to the region, that the Arab League will follow-up the renewed offer with active diplomatic outreach:

"What exact form that active diplomacy might take is something that needs to be determined, and ultimately is going to be up to them to determine what that looks like," said McCormack.

"But certainly this is an effort to reach out, to be constructive, on an issue of interest to all the countries of the region, and we are encouraged by this development, and we certainly welcome it," he continued.

While the Arab League summit announced no direct overture to Israel, a senior diplomat here noted that the 23-country organization did set up a committee to explain the decision to the international Middle East Quartet, the G-8 industrial powers and other interested parties.

He said the Arab League committee might not actually travel to Israel but that the U.S. expectation is that Israeli officials will be included in some form in the briefing process.

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