JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates failed to bridge differences with Saudi Arabia Wednesday in a growing public dispute over allegations of Saudi support for insurgents in Iraq. Instead, the talks revealed how far the onetime close allies have drifted apart.
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal expressed astonishment at recent Bush administration charges that Saudi Arabia is providing funding, equipment and manpower to Iraq's Sunni-led insurgency, and he rejected an appeal by Rice and Gates to give public backing to the Shiite-led government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.
"I think what is needed is action on the other side. The trafficking of terrorists, I can assure you, is more of a concern for us from Iraq, and this is one of the worries our government has," al Faisal said, flanked by Rice and Gates.
In the talks, which began Tuesday evening and concluded Wednesday morning, Rice and Gates made small strides at best on the key issues: Iraq, Iran, tensions in Lebanon and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Al Faisal said Saudi Arabia would consider opening an embassy in Baghdad, something the United States has long wanted to see in order to bolster the shaky U.S.-backed government there. He also said his country would consider attending a U.S.-proposed peace conference, but only if it "deals with the substantive matters of peace."
He reserved his sharpest reaction for Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and the highest-level U.S. official to charge Saudi Arabia with providing support for the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. Khalilzad, the former ambassador to Iraq, had said in a New York Times opinion piece last month that neighboring countries other than Iran and Syria were pursuing destabilizing policies in Iraq. On Sunday, he said in a television interview that he was referring to Saudi Arabia, among other countries.
"I was astounded by what he said, especially since we have never heard from him these criticisms when he was here," the foreign minister retorted. "He may have been influenced by the atmosphere at the U.N."
The muddled outcome of the meeting comes at a time when President Bush, who dispatched Rice and Gates on a special mission to the Middle East, is under pressure to show results from a diplomatic initiative intended to reverse the precarious U.S. position in the region.
"It wasn't a 'yes', and it wasn't a 'no'," said former State Department official Jon Alterman, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, of the Saudis' reaction to the Bush administration's requests. The talks, he said, were "diplomatic, rather than definitive."
Vali Nasr, an expert on Shiite Islam at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the trip's results show an increasingly independent Saudi Arabia that's less beholden to Washington's wishes.
It's "a major break in U.S.-Saudi relations. And it shows the Saudis want to follow an independent policy," Nasr said. "They think the U.S. needs their support against Iran. They think the U.S. needs their public support of the Palestinian peace process. And they are taking advantage of that."
Rice and Gates arrived in Jeddah on Tuesday night and dined with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah at one of his palaces. They discussed policy while facing a wall-length tank filled with fish, including two 10-foot sharks that the Saudis fed throughout the evening.
On Wednesday, Gates headed to Kuwait, his first visit there as secretary of defense. There, he saw the U.S. military installation by helicopter, which the U.S. uses to move troops and equipment to and from Iraq. Rice went on to Israel, her first visit there since the militant Palestinian group Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in a violent June coup.
Saudi Arabia has long declined to establish a diplomatic outpost in Iraq, whose Shiite-led government it views with disdain. Arab nations also have security concerns following the July 2005 kidnapping and assassination of Egypt's ambassador to Iraq.
A senior State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak on the record, welcomed the announcement that Saudi Arabia would send a delegation to Baghdad to explore opening a Saudi embassy. But he cautioned that relations between Saudi Arabia and the U.S.-backed Iraqi government remain tense.
"I don't want to overrate it," he said. "They have real concerns about the Maliki government."
Israel's foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, also welcomed al Faisal's statement. "I believe the Saudi announcement of today is encouraging," Livni said at a brief press conference with Rice in Jerusalem.
The international meeting — U.S. officials have refused to call it a "conference" — is expected to take place in the fall, after the Muslim holiday month of Ramadan, which begins in mid-September, and the Jewish holidays, said the senior State Department official. But the agenda, attendance list and locale remain unclear.
In Israel, Rice met with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other top officials to try to encourage a warming of ties between Israel and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after the Hamas party seized power in Gaza, which prompted Abbas to dismiss the Hamas-led Palestinian unity government.
On Thursday, she'll meet Abbas in Ramallah and is expected to announce initial U.S. aid of about $10 million to help reform Palestinian security services. But no breakthroughs are expected.