Saudi ambassador encourages US in Middle East

Bandar urges UN security guarantees for WMD-free nations in region.

In only his second appearance before the news media since Sept. 11, 2001, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States encouraged sustained US involvement in the Middle East especially in Iraq and between Israel and the Palestinians.

The message that America is still seen by the Saudis as indispensable to the region comes amid a period of strained relations with Washington - among the most tense in Prince Bandar bin Sultan's 20 years as ambassador. A period that has witnessed the withdrawal of US forces from the kingdom and a private class-action lawsuit against royal officials by 9/11 survivors and relatives.

"We believe part of the objective of the terrorists and the evil people who [carried out the attacks] was Saudi-American relations that they wanted destroyed," said Mr. Bandar, speaking at a news conference at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. "They failed, but it's scary how close they got to succeeding."

The ambassador laid blame for the rocky relations on a Congress "that has a particular agenda entering what I call your silly season" of elections as well as "a lot of garbage" reports in the media.

Regarding one particular report in The Washington Times Wednesday, Bandar again denied that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have struck an oil-for-nukes deal. Far from trying to obtain weapons of mass destruction, Riyadh has been lobbying for a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, he said. Under such a proposal, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council would give a protection guarantee to any nation without weapons of mass destruction in the region.

In the region, only Israel is believed to have nuclear weapons, but Iran may be developing them as well.

"This is the kind of international cooperation after the cold war that will have real impact on the disarmament of the world," Bandar said.

The WMD-free-Mideast proposal suggests that, despite the removal of US troops from Saudi soil following the fall of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, the kingdom still looks to outside powers for security assistance.

And in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict - a source of deep tension in the Muslim world - Bandar said that the US remains the only interlocutor with the power to bring the two sides to a settlement.

The ambassador blamed the conflict's seeming intractability on a "failure of leadership" on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides. He said that a peace deal doesn't "need a rocket scientist to develop," and suggested that the remaining sticking points would not be hard to finesse if both sides recognized that the Israeli people need security and the Palestinian people need dignity.

Bandar noted that while the Bush administration has seemed to devote little energy to the crisis since the collapse of the road map, appearances are deceiving.

"You'd be surprised how behind the scenes President Bush and [Secretary of State] Colin Powell and [National Security Adviser] Condi [Rice] and others have been working on these issues," Bandar said. "It's just a style difference. People before them were overt, these people are covert."

Similarly, regarding the US involvement in Iraq, Bandar urged America to press on, saying that if the occupation forces left too soon it would result in a "catastrophe."

"I'm more optimistic about the situation in Iraq than what I see in the media reports from there," he said. "The good that was done was much more than the bad that we see now."

Referring to street demonstrations, Bandar said, "What you see now is a sign of discontent that is music to the ears of people who had 35 years of suppression."

Despite tepid public support for an Iraq attack in the months and weeks leading up to the war, the ambassador now praises the US initiative.

"Everybody agreed that [Mr. Hussein] is an evil man, but nobody had the capability to do anything about it - nor the guts," he said. "And this president actually had the courage to go through with it."

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