The Bush administration on Thursday rejected criticism by a key Arab ally of the U.S. role in Iraq.

Touching off an unusual public exchange, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia declared Wednesday at an Arab League meeting in Riyadh that the United States was occupying Iraq illegally.

"In beloved Iraq," he said, "blood is flowing between brothers, in the shadow of an illegitimate foreign occupation, and abhorrent sectarianism threatens a civil war."

Questioned Thursday about Abdullah's statement at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing that dealt mostly with the situations in Iran and Iraq, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns replied: "I was a little surprised to see these remarks."

But he also told Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., that "we disagree."

The U.S. campaign against insurgents in Iraq has wide international support including the approval of the Iraqi government, Burns said.

"We will seek clarification," he said.

Diplomatically, Burns also said reports of Abudllah's remarks "could be a misinterpretation" and that the Bush administration would try to find out.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, meanwhile, called Saudi Arabia a good friend and ally, and said the kingdom had good relations with President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

"That is something we view as very positive," McCormack said.

The Saudis are considered supporters of the U.S. effort to defeat radical insurgents in Iraq and restore order.

When Saudi leaders disagree with the United States on policy issues, they usually make their points quietly, avoiding open confrontation.