(AP) WASHINGTON – The Saudi government challenged the Bush administration Tuesday to prove its claims that Saudi citizens have traveled to Iraq to fight American troops, and said U.S. forces have failed to secure their side of the border.
“We are very concerned about this issue because we would like to take action,” Saudi foreign policy adviser Adel al-Jubeir said in an interview with The Associated Press. “But we have no evidence of Saudis crossing into Iraq and we have received no evidence from the U.S. government.”
Al-Jubeir said his government has offered to send its own team of investigators to help U.S. officials identify any possible Saudi expatriate who may have come through other countries, like Iran, or who made it through the porous, desert borders between Iraq and the Saudi kingdom.
“We are willing to send a team to Iraq to look at any evidence they might have,” he said. “Saudi Arabia is determined to fight terrorism and to prosecute terrorists regardless of where they are.”
Al-Jubeir was reacting to comments by Bush administration officials over the last few days suggesting some foreign fighters have crossed from Saudi Arabia and other countries to help fight the American occupation in Iraq through sabotage, and attacks on soldiers.
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage suggested Saudi Arabia was among three countries that had not stopped these fighters from crossing into Iraq.
“The ways these people are getting into the country is from Iran and from Syria and from Saudi Arabia,” Armitage said in an interview with the Arabic-language al-Jazeera television channel. “I’m not in a position to assert that the governments of Iran or Syria and Saudi Arabia are in any way responsible. But as a minimum I can state that … these fighters are not being stopped at the borders.”
Those comments came even as the Saudi government struck a deal to allow FBI (news – web sites) and U.S. intelligence agents to create a new joint U.S.-Saudi task force to track terrorist financing in the kingdom
Al-Jubeir said Saudi guards are on full patrol along the Iraqi border, but that American troops have failed to occupy the border positions that were abandoned by Iraqi soldiers at the start of the war.
“We have raised this issue with the U.S. on a number of times, both before the war and after the hostilities ended,’ al-Jubeir said. “We have raised the importance of sealing the Iraqi border with the U.S. government because of concerns there might be smuggling of weapons from Iraq into Saudi Arabia.”
The State Department said Tuesday that Saudi Arabia is cooperating in the war on terrorism but that more could be done.
“We have always said we’ve got good, solid cooperation with the Saudis on counterterrorism,” spokeswoman Julie Reside said. “More can be done and more must be done, but we have a dialogue with them through the U.S.-Saudi joint terrorism commission to share information, to coordinate our response and to address issues that may come up where they have questions.”
Al-Jubeir said his government was disappointed that the only information it has received about possible Saudi terrorists inside Iraq was through press reports quoting American officials and he added any criticism about porous borders needs to be measured against the failure of U.S. troops to man the border on the Iraq side.
“They are the occupying force and can secure their side,” he said.
U.S. officials, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, said several foreign fighters have been apprehended by U.S. troops in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq and that papers found with them indicate they came into Iraq from countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria. The officials said U.S. investigators are still trying to determine their identities, origins and travel.
U.S. intelligence also is examining evidence, some uncorroborated, that money and aid to Iraqi people from charities with ties to Saudi Arabia might be diverted to terrorist causes, the officials said, cautioning much of the intelligence is preliminary.
Al-Jubeir acknowledged the border with Iraq is long and dotted mostly with hard-to-patrol desert land that could be exploited. “Patrolling of our side takes tremendous resources,” he said.
The oil-rich kingdom has long been one of America’s staunchest allies in the Middle East and helped facilitate American troops during both wars against Iraq.
But the relationship has been strained since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia.
Still-classified sections of a congressional report reviewing those attacks raise questions about possible Saudi financing of the attacks, citing a string of financial transactions and contacts between hijackers and some Saudi citizens. It also raises questions about whether two Saudis on U.S. soil who had contact with the hijackers may have been Saudi intelligence agents, AP has reported.
Saudi officials dismiss those allegations as spurious and said its country has provided enormous resources to fight al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden (news – web sites), whose family hails from the kingdom.
Some American officials have raised concerns about the level of cooperation from the Saudis but all sides agree that cooperation has improved since Islamic extremists set off deadly bombs earlier this year in Riyadh. The Saudi government has rounded up and prosecuted more than 500 terrorists inside the kingdom since Sept. 11, Saudi officials have said.