Saudi Arabia's unexpectedly harsh criticism of the US occupation of Iraq marked a turning point in the complex relations between Washington and its key Sunni ally that raises serious questions about the Bush administration's Middle East policy, analysts said.
Speaking to a summit meeting of Arab leaders last week in Riyadh, Saudi King Abdullah referred to the US troop presence in Iraq as an "illegitimate foreign occupation."
US officials were dumbfounded by the portrayal of the costly US military operation that US President George W. Bush defends as an effort being carried out at the request of the Iraq government to help stabilize a fledgling democracy.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, to seek an explanation of the king's remarks.
But she refrained from taking the matter up directly with her Saudi counterpart, Prince Saud al-Faisal, in an apparent bid to avoid aggravating the rift.
Analysts saw Abdullah's tough public stance as part of a move by the Saudi monarch to take the lead of a new pan-Arab movement to counter the rising influence of Shiite Iran.
Implicit in the king's criticism is an assumption that Bush's strategy in Iraq is destined to fail and a desire to draw Syria -- spurned by Washington as an ally of Iran -- away from Tehran and back into the Arab fold, said Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma's Center for Peace Studies.
"By calling the US occupation of Iraq illegal, King Abdullah announced that he is seeking a new policy toward Iraq, one designed for the post-American phase in Iraq and one that must be coordinated with Syria," Landis said.
Abdullah also met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad twice on the sidelines of the Riyadh summit, Landis added.
Juan Cole, a specialist at Michigan University, said Abdullah "thinks Bush is pursuing irrational policies, the effect of which is to destabilize the Middle East."
The Saudi king is also frustrated that Bush has rejected a Saudi-brokered power-sharing deal between US-backed Palestinians and Hamas aimed at ending Palestinian factional violence and drawing Hamas away from its Iranian backers, he said.
"Abdullah is angry that Bush is letting the Palestine issue fester and that he pushed for open Palestinian elections but then cut off the Hamas government once it was elected," Cole said.
In an interview with Newsweek, Foreign Minister Saud confirmed that one of the kingdom's goals was to restore a sense of "Arab identity" in the Middle East and to take a leading role tackling the region's problems rather than follow US policy.
There is a feeling "that in the Arab world things are happening as if there are no people in the region who have their own separate will, that there are no people in the region who can protect their own interests, or even their own territory," Saud said.
He described the recent Arab League summit as "an effort to make Arab decisions that are worked out -- not just to meet and take decisions and go out and forget about them -- to show that when we promise to do something in the Arab world, we do it."
Saud's remarks amounted to a clear rebuke of Rice for the very public pressure she put on Saudi Arabia during her latest visit to the region to step up efforts at reconciliation with Israel.
Rice, who met Saud and other counterparts from Arab states ahead of the Riyadh summit, said the Arabs should reach out to Israel by relaunching a dormant five-year-old Saudi plan for peace with the Jewish state.
She argued that such Arab-Israeli reconciliation would provide Israel with the security and incentives needed to make peace with the Palestinians.
But the Saudis countered that it was up to Israel to first make the territorial and other concessions needed to negotiate deals with the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon.
"The people who have to help in getting us from here to there are the Israelis and the Palestinians, the Israelis and the Syrians, and the Israelis and the Lebanese," Saud said.
"Once they solve their problems, then you can have peace between all the Arab countries and Israel," he said. "This is what seems to escape everybody's attention in talking about the [Arab peace] proposal."
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