The government of Saudi Arabia declined Monday to give U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright assurances that it would allow bases on its territory to be used for military strikes against Iraq.
A senior American official described the Saudi position on use of bases as a setback but probably a temporary one that could be resolved as early as next week when Defense Secretary William Cohen arrives for further talks. “If we had gotten a yes, she would have said so,” the official said. “The Saudis are going to be consulting on this.”
And U.S. officials suggested that an effective military strike against Iraq still could be launched without the use of land bases in the region.
Albright is traveling in the Persian Gulf to bolster support for the possible use of force against Iraq. But the United States appears to be facing an uphill task in gaining international backing for any such military action.
The Saudis’ reluctance is in sharp contrast with 1991, when it helped the United States mount an attack to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait, which Iraq invaded. Now, the Saudis are apparently unwilling to risk isolation in the region by appearing to be too closely aligned with the United States.
Iraq has refused to give United Nations inspectors access to a number of sites that it calls “presidential palaces.” The United States says Iraq might be manufacturing chemical or biological weapons at those installations. It is pressing other countries to support military strikes to force Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to open the sites.
But many nations, while condemning Iraq’s intransigence, are calling for further negotiations to end the standoff. Germany and France on Monday called for further diplomatic efforts, and Paris dispatched an envoy to the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, for negotiations. Russian media said Moscow had brokered a concession from Iraq that would have allowed more inspections. But Iraq flatly denied those reports and continued to condemn the United States.
Against this backdrop, Albright met with Crown Prince Abdullah Abdulaziz for six hours at a desert encampment outside Riyadh to lay out U.S. concerns and seek support for the use of force. The prince concluded by saying his government was still weighing whether to give approval for U.S. aircraft to use bases on Saudi territory, American officials said.
“Clearly the bulk of the assets are carrier-based, and there are long-range bombing capabilities also,” said a senior Western diplomat. “Using direct strikes from the gulf (airbases) are one option but for political and military reasons it may not be the chosen one.”
Further confusing, and perhaps complicating, U.S. efforts was a Russian diplomatic overture to end the crisis. Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov sent an envoy, Viktor Posuvalyuk, to meet with Iraqi officials in Baghdad.
The envoy, according to the official Iraqi news agency, delivered another message from Russian President Boris Yeltsin. It did not give further details on Posuvalyuk’s second trip to Baghdad in a week.
Russian media reported that Posuvalyuk had earlier wrested an agreement from the Iraqis to allow access to nine of the disputed sites that UN inspectors want to visit, but the Iraqis themselves disputed those accounts. And U.S. officials said any compromise that allows Baghdad to keep some sites off-limits to United Nations inspectors is unacceptable.