Saudi Arabia pledged yesterday to explore opening diplomatic relations with the Shiite-led government in Iraq, an endorsement long sought by Iraq's US backers.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told visiting US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that his country would soon send a diplomatic mission to Baghdad "and explore how we can start an embassy in Iraq."
"We expressed our hope that we will work closely with Iraq regarding security aspects, especially terrorism," the foreign minister said.
Al-Faisal also told reporters that Saudi Arabia supports and would attend the Middle East peace conference proposed by US President George W. Bush for later this year.
"When we get an invitation from the minister [Rice] to attend, when this takes place, we will discuss it and we will make sure that we attend" the conference, al-Faisal said.
Saudi Arabia has no diplomatic relations with Israel and its presence at a peace conference with the Jewish State would be a diplomatic breakthrough.
The Arab regional heavyweight has also had frosty relations with the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and has not hidden its suspicions that al-Maliki does not have the interests of Iraq's Sunni minority at heart.
Rice thanked her Saudi host for considering diplomatic ties, calling it "an important step."
The Arab world has lagged far behind Europe in placing embassies in Baghdad.
Responding to criticism from the US ambassador to the UN, al-Faisal said Saudi Arabia was already doing all it could to address concerns about the flow of terrorists over its border into Iraq.
"All that we can do in order to protect the border in Iraq we have been doing," he said.
The visiting US officials, hearing blunt concerns from nervous Arab leaders on Tuesday, assured them the US would not abruptly withdraw troops from Iraq and trigger chaos that could spread across the Gulf region.
Even as an increasingly impatient Congress presses for troops to come home, Rice and Gates said they told Gulf leaders that Bush would take the region's stability into account as he plans long-term strategy for Iraq.
"There clearly is concern on the part of the Egyptians, and I think it probably represents concern elsewhere in the region, that the United States will somehow withdraw precipitously from Iraq, or in some way that is destabilizing to the entire region," Gates told reporters after he and Rice wrapped up meetings with Egypt's top leaders.
Gates, in fact, seemed to open the door a bit wider toward a more gradual pullout -- something commanders in Iraq have been angling for of late -- saying he is sensing greater openness on Capitol Hill to a more careful, deliberate withdrawal.
Rice said they told the allies that Bush's Iraq policies "have at their core an understanding of the fundamental importance of a stable Iraq to the stability of this region."