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Saudis Outraged Over US Decision on Veils

There is anger in Saudi Arabia over a U.S. decision to allow American military servicewomen the choice of whether to wear head-to-foot robes while outside U.S. military bases in Saudi Arabia.

When they are in public, women in Saudi Arabia wear a full-length black robe called an "abaya." It is strictly enforced by Saudi Arabia.

In deference to Muslim sensitivities, the U.S. military had required American female service members to wear the robe while off base, ever since U.S. forces went to Saudi Arabia in 1990, prior to the Gulf war. However, this week the U.S. military said the abaya was no longer compulsory.

The decision follows a recent lawsuit filed by U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Martha McSally, the nation's highest-ranking woman fighter pilot, who was seeking to have the U.S. military rule abolished.

Saudi reaction, according to published reports, has been one of outrage.

Sheikh Saad al-Saleh, an official at the Saudi Islamic Affairs Ministry, was quoted as saying, "there must be no exceptions in enforcing the Islamic dress code in Saudi streets. No one of any nationality," he said, "is exempt in the eyes of the religion."

Milad Hanna is a religious expert with the al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. He says, given the current political climate in the Middle East, he disagrees with the U.S. decision.

"American military women have the right to do it the way they behave. It's their right to do so. But we say, 'when in Rome do as the Romans do.' Therefore, I think, we are living in Saudi Arabia, so do as the Saudi Arabians do. Had I been asked to give advice, I would not have advised to take such a position," he said.

The new directive was issued by General Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command, responsible for operations in Afghanistan, the Middle East and the Gulf. U.S. servicewomen, according to the directive, are being advised that wearing an abaya in public remains strongly recommended.

The United States has about 5,000 military personnel in Saudi Arabia, many of whom are used to enforce the "no-fly zones" in Iraq.

Military authorities say it is rare for U.S. servicewomen to venture outside of Saudi air bases. When they do they must be escorted by a man and, in keeping with Saudi law, are not allowed to drive while off base.

The decision comes at a time when both Saudi and U.S. leaders have vigorously denied media reports that Saudi Arabia might soon ask U.S. forces to leave the country. This week, Saudi officials said the country's relationship with the U.S. is excellent.