In Saudi Arabia, tensions over war hit boiling point


RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - The invitation one afternoon this week was for a ladies' tea - a social event at the home of the U.S. ambassador's wife, Ann Jordan.

Tea was served to the Americans and their Saudi guests. Polite introductions and pleasantries were shared. Children were inquired about. A platter of smoked salmon finger sandwiches got passed around.

Then the gloves came off.

Fawziya Abu Khaled, a poet and academic, put down her tea and looked at the Americans with defiance.

It had been hard, she said, to accept an invitation to come to the U.S. ambassador's residence - the lair of the enemy, really.

"This war is making people pro-Saddam, because it's not fair that you come from outside and remove a president, even if he is a dictator," she declared. "You thought the Iraqis would join you and fight for their freedom, but people instead of fighting for their freedom are standing behind him."

Hend al Khuthail, professor of higher-education studies at King Saud University, spoke up next, saying she had seen a picture on the news of an American father crying because his son had been killed fighting in Iraq.

"Everybody in his mind has the picture of this father crying and complaining and saying to Bush, 'You took away my only son!' We just can't [stand to] see that," she said.

The questions continued: Why hadn't the Bush administration made a serious effort at peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians before launching war in Iraq? Didn't the Americans realize there were no floods of Iraqi refugees because the Iraqis were staying home to defend their homeland?

At this point, Laura Collins, an American who is raising her children in Saudi Arabia and helping Saudi women start businesses through the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority, spoke up.

"Saddam Hussein is a bad man," Collins said. "He's killed lots and lots of Muslims, he was the only Muslim attacking Kuwait and Iran, he threw bombs at Saudi Arabia and Qatar, he used chemical weapons on his own people.

"Really, how many people need to die before you say this has got to stop?"

The Saudi women appeared nonplussed for a moment, then the woman who runs the charity organization, who asked that her name not be reported, started in on the hail of munitions that has descended over Baghdad. Didn't Collins realize that many of them were killing innocent people? she asked.

Margaret Scobie, the embassy's No. 2 diplomat, stepped in.

"This is a war we tried relentlessly to avoid, and we came to the belief that this was something we needed to do," she said. "We have gone in there to remove the weapons of mass destruction, and the only thing that has stood in the way is the regime of Saddam Hussein."

As for civilian casualties, she said, "I can tell you, [U.S. forces commander] Gen. [Tommy] Franks worries a lot more about women and children than Saddam Hussein does."

On the other side of the tea table, there were doubtful looks, then tentative smiles, then farewells, soft hands extended.

Kim Murphy writes for The Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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