JIDDA, Saudi Arabia -- Saudi Arabia's foreign minister gave voice yesterday to simmering tensions between the desert kingdom and the Bush administration, insisting his country is doing all it can to block Saudi militants from crossing the border into Iraq as insurgents and saying he was "astounded" at recent criticism of its efforts by a senior U.S. official.
The comments by Saud al-Faisal, at a news conference while flanked by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, came during their high-profile visit aimed at pushing Saudi and other Sunni Arab allies to do more to help the beleaguered Shiite-dominated Iraqi government.
The bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia, one of the most important for the U.S. in the region, has shown signs of strain in recent months over the situation in Iraq, most publicly in March when Saudi King Abdullah called the U.S. presence in Iraq an "illegal foreign occupation."
Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. envoy to Iraq who recently became the administration's ambassador to the United Nations, hit back last month, writing in The New York Times that "some friends of the United States" that neighbor Iraq "are pursuing destabilizing policies" toward Baghdad.
Although Khalilzad did not mention Saudi Arabia by name, the comments were widely viewed as a swipe at Riyadh.
"I was astounded by what he said, especially since we have never heard from him these criticisms when he was here," Faisal said, when asked by reporters about Khalilzad's comments. "I ascribed that to his being in the United Nations in New York and not in Iraq."
Faisal defended his country's record on limiting Saudi nationals from entering Iraq, where Iraqi officials insist they make up nearly half of all foreigners fighting Iraqi and American security forces. Faisal insisted Saudi Arabia was already doing "all that we can do" to block extremists traveling into Iraq.
Instead, he pointed the finger at Baghdad, saying a heavier flow of radicals was entering Saudi Arabia from Iraq.
"The traffic of terrorists, I can assure you, is more on this side, coming from Iraq than going from us to Iraq," he said. "This is one of the worries our government has."
At the same news conference, Rice acknowledged differences on approaches to regional policy but insisted the U.S. and Saudi Arabia remain close and are working to the same goals.
"If there are problems the United States has with Saudi policy, we talk about it," she said. "If there are problems that Saudi Arabia has with American policy, we talk about it."
Rice said she was particularly encouraged by Riyadh's decision to begin normalizing its relationship with Baghdad. Faisal said he would send a diplomatic mission to Baghdad to discuss opening an embassy. Rice called that an important step.
"This is something that we have encouraged," Rice said. "Normal relations between Iraq and its neighbors is extremely important in affirming its identity in this part of the world."
A senior Defense Department official who participated in talks with the Saudis here said Faisal's concerns about radicals moving into Saudi Arabia from Iraq had not been raised in talks prior to the news conference. The official insisted the Saudis, while frank in their private discussions, expressed a strong commitment to maintaining close ties to the U.S.
The official said King Abdullah, who hosted Rice and Gates at an extravagant dinner Tuesday night in the royal palace here, was particularly effusive in his discussion of the importance of bilateral relations.
According to U.S. participants, the dinner was held in a grand hall of the palace that had a mosaic-tiled swimming pool at its center.
The issue of Saudi fighters in Iraq has become one in a series of increasingly testy issues between the two countries. U.S. officials traveling to the region for the joint trip, which started Tuesday in Egypt and ended when Rice left for Israel yesterday afternoon and Gates continued on to Kuwait, said they believe Saudi Arabia can do more to prevent the fighters from entering Iraq.
But the officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity when discussing private bilateral meetings, insist most of the blame can be pinned on Syria, which allows foreigners to pass through Damascus on their journey into Iraq.
"Can all these countries do more to help screen people from their countries going to Iraq?" asked another senior Defense official. "Absolutely, but we also realize the Damascus airport is the express lane."
Peter Spiegel writes for the Los Angeles Times.