JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia – Saudi Arabia will not give the United States access to bases in the kingdom for an attack on Saddam Hussein, but the foreign minister said Wednesday the longtime U.S. ally does not plan to expel American forces from an air base used for flights to monitor Iraq.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Prince Saud said the 70-year-old U.S.-Saudi alliance was just as solid now as before the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States.
He said Usama bin Laden, who was stripped of Saudi citizenship and who directed the al Qaeda attacks, had intended to drive a wedge between the two countries when he chose 15 Saudi citizens to be among the 19 hijackers who crashed planes into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon.
Beyond that, Saud denied the kingdom sends financial aid to Palestinian suicide bombers who have killed more than 260 Israelis in 22 months of Mideast violence.
Opposition to a U.S. attack to overthrow Saddam is gaining strength in Europe as well.
In an interview published Wednesday, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said military action would wreck the international front fighting terrorism worldwide and in Afghanistan, throw the Mideast into turmoil and hurt the world economy.
In Britain, a country seen as President Bush's strongest backer against Iraq, Mike O'Brien, Foreign Office minister for the Middle East, suggested Baghdad's recent gesture to readmit weapons inspectors could make military action unnecessary.
Saud said his government had made no secret of its opposition to a U.S. strike on Iraq. When asked if the kingdom would allow the United States to use Saudi facilities for such an attack, the prince said:
``We have told them we don't (want) them to use Saudi grounds.''
The United States reportedly has quietly moved weapons, equipment and communications gear from Saudi Arabia to the al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar in recent months, concerned the kingdom would limit Washington's ability to act freely in the region.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said talk of a U.S. strike against Saddam Hussein was hypothetical and that the president had not asked the Saudis for use of their territory.
``The president has not proposed such a thing; therefore, I don't find it really something that has been engaged as such,'' Rumsfeld said in response to a question about Saud's remarks.
The Saudi prince, while not addressing Bush's declarations that Saddam must be removed as Iraq's leader, said U.S. goals could be met with other tactics.
``The attack is not the right policy to take, especially since there is a possibility of implementing what the attack is purported to be used for — which is the return of the (U.N. weapons) inspectors,'' he said.
Saud spoke English during the interview at his office in the seaside Conference Palace complex, and stressed his government had relayed its views consistently to Washington both in public and private.
Bush offered assurances Wednesday he would explore all options and consult broadly before choosing a method of dealing with ``threats that could eventually hurt our freedoms.''
``I will promise you that I will be patient and deliberate, that we will continue to consult with Congress and, of course, we'll consult with our friends and allies,'' he said during a speech in Mississippi.
The United States has spoken publicly about ousting Saddam for his refusal to live up to promises he made at the conclusion of the Gulf War, including his refusal to allow the return of U.N. weapons inspectors.
Under U.N. Security Council resolutions, sanctions imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait cannot be lifted until U.N. inspectors certify that its biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons have been destroyed along with the long-range missiles to deliver them.
Last week, Iraq invited U.N. chief weapons inspector Hans Blix to Baghdad for technical discussions that could lead to a resumption of the inspections, more than 3 1/2 years after inspectors left Iraq ahead of U.S. and British airstrikes and were barred from returning.
Washington has dismissed the invitation as a ploy and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan rejected the Iraqi offer, saying Baghdad must accept Security Council terms for the return of weapons inspectors.
The Saudi sentiments on a new attack against Iraq are shared by most Arab nations even though they joined the U.S.-led Gulf War coalition that liberated Kuwait in 1991. Saudi Arabia invited U.S. troops to the oil-rich kingdom to help defend it against Saddam's forces.
But now, with strong anti-American sentiment rising in the region because of the perceived U.S. backing for Israel against the Palestinians, Arab leaders say this is not the time to risk further instability.
Asked about reports Saudi Arabia had asked the United States to remove gradually its thousands of troops from the Prince Sultan air base, Saud said ``nothing of this sort has happened ... nothing is happening in the present, and we don't consider that anything will change in the future.''
Saud said he was unaware of any troops or equipment being moved out of the base and declared Saudi support for continuation of decade-old U.S. patrols of Iraqi skies to keep Saddam's army in check.
The Bush administration has praised Saudi cooperation in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, though some U.S. lawmakers have been deeply critical.
Saud said the complaints came from ``individuals who have their opinions about Saudi Arabia. We think they are based on false assumptions and on untruths in most instances.''
After the Sept. 11 attack, Saud said, the government has sped up its review of textbooks used in the kingdom's schools. Some of the materials in religious books promoted anti-Western sentiments espoused by bin Laden.
``The shock of the attack in this country was as much as it was in the United States, particularly because there were so many Saudis in this attack,'' Saud said. It led, he added, to ``some introspection.''
Saud said his country was cooperating with Washington in the fight against terror in areas of intelligence and information gathering, the prevention of funding of terrorist groups and security. He said he did not know whether bin Laden was alive.
Saud denied that the hundreds of thousands of dollars the kingdom has donated to the Palestinians in their latest uprising against Israel had gone to terrorists.
On Sunday, Sens. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, and Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, accused Saudi Arabia of aiding those behind last week's bus bombing in northern Israel that killed nine Israelis.