The fragile United States coalition being constructed for the fight against terrorism was weakened somewhat Sunday, as Saudi Arabia's defense minister said that his country would not be used to launch attacks on Arabs or Muslims.
"We will not accept in our country even a single soldier who will attack Muslims or Arabs," Defense Minister Prince Sultan bin Faisal bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud said in an interview published in the government-controlled Okaz newspaper.
It is possible Sultan's comments might have been intended only for domestic consumption.
U.S. officials said on condition of anonymity Friday that they have been discreetly assured that U.S. commanders will be allowed to use Saudi bases to stage military actions against Saudi exile Usama bin Laden, thought to be responsible for the Sept. 11 terror attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., and his Taliban hosts in Afghanistan.
A compromise might be that attack forces might be launched from other countries while the entire operation would be conducted from the Prince Sultan Air Base in al-Kharj, a vast compound in a remote stretch of desert south of the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
Bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization is made up largely of Arabs from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and while Afghans themselves are not Arabs, the ruling Taliban militia follows an extreme interpretation of Islamic law similar to the that followed by the Saudi royal family.
The Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan on Sunday declared that bin Laden was being hidden by the Taliban for his own safety, reversing earlier declarations that they did not know where he was.
The presence of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia is one reason bin Laden, a Saudi national by birth, has declared war on the United States. Saudi officials have in the past simply denied there is a U.S. military presence in their nation.
In the Okaz interview, Sultan, a prince of the ruling al-Saud family, said there are 40 U.S., British and French airplanes in the kingdom as part of the U.N.-approved patrols of the southern Iraq "no fly" zone. He did not acknowledge that foreign soldiers are in the kingdom as part of the patrols.
About 4,500 U.S. soldiers and an undisclosed number of U.S. warplanes involved in the patrols are based at the Prince Sultan Air Base.
The Associated Press contributed to this report