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11/22 04:21

Saudi Sees No bin Laden-Iraq Link

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, Nov. 22 Saudi Arabia's former intelligence chief said today that his government had seen no evidence that the Iraqi government had provided support to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network. He said Saudi Arabia would not support making Iraq a military target of the war on terrorism.

Prince Turki bin FaisalThe official, Prince Turki bin Faisal, said that his country regarded the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, as one of the world's most active terrorists. But he said the best way to topple him would be a coup carried out inside Iraq, and that the United States and its allies should avoid further military strikes in the region.

The warning by Prince Turki was the most explicit yet in what appears to be a growing effort by Arab governments to head off what many in the region suspect may be the next phase in the American-led war: making a target of Iraq as a supporter of terrorism, particularly if it can be linked to the Al Qaeda network.

"You target Saddam Hussein and no one will boo or hiss or object," Prince Turki said in a 90-minute interview here. "But bombings like the ones we saw against Iraq in 1998, or like the ones we've seen now in Afghanistan, with so-called collateral bombings, when bombs hit innocent people, will have strong resonance and very bad implications for relations with the West."

Prince Turki, 56, stepped down from his post in late August in what he said today was a voluntary departure. But as Saudi Arabia's intelligence chief for 25 years, he speaks with enormous weight, particularly about matters related to Mr. bin Laden, the son of a prominent Saudi family who was stripped of his citizenship in 1994 and has become the kingdom's public enemy No. 1.

Prince Turki said he had no explanation for reports from Czech officials that Mohamed Atta, one of the hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks, had met earlier this year in Prague with an Iraqi intelligence official.

But he said that his country's voluminous files on Mr. bin Laden contained no evidence of any link to the Iraqi government, and he said he was concerned that Americans eager to punish their foe in Baghdad might draw a connection where there was none.

"Iraq doesn't come very high in the estimation of Osama bin Laden," Prince Turki said. "He thinks of him as an apostate, an infidel, or someone who is not worthy of being a fellow Muslim.

"If there is anything on the table implicating Arab countries it should be brought out, and not brought out through newspaper leaks quoting between quotation marks U.S. officials, or intelligence or State Department or defense officials."

Saudi reservations about the use of military force against Iraq are not new. In 1990, after Iraq invaded Kuwait, Saudi officials agonized for days before permitting American and other foreign forces to enter the kingdom, first as a defensive force and then as the army of more than 500,000 troops that ultimately forced the Iraqi withdrawal.

More recently, while allowing American warplanes to patrol Iraqi skies from a base in Saudi Arabia, the Saudis have refused to let those aircraft take part in airstrikes against Iraqi targets, even in self- defense. Such raids are typically carried out from Navy aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf or by warplanes from other bases in the region.

Even in the current campaign in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia has limited its military contribution to allowing American commanders to coordinate the operation from Prince Sultan Air Base, about 60 miles southeast of Riyadh. In the knowledge that the answer would be no, American officials never even asked Saudi officials to allow the use of more than 100 United States warplanes at the base.

Asked whether there was any chance that Saudi Arabia would allow the United States to use those warplanes in a strike against Iraq as part of the war on terrorism, Prince Turki said today: "Absolutely not.

"We've seen in the past what American attacks have done in Iraq," Prince Turki said. "You remember during President Clinton's time in 1998, two weeks of attacks, to destroy Saddam's air defense structure and his communications, and in our view the result of those attacks was merely to bolster Saddam's position in Iraq and make the people more supportive of him.

"Not only that, it also gained him support in the Arab world, not because he is Saddam Hussein and people admire him, but because they saw these attacks as being aggression against Iraq."

There are some within the Bush administration who advocate using the war on terrorism to increase pressure on the Iraqi regime, perhaps through zones in southern and northern Iraq in which forces opposed to Mr. Hussein would be given sanctuary by American troops.

But Prince Turki argued that it would be a mistake for American forces to become involved in Iraq. He said his government believed that Mr. Hussein could be toppled, but that the Iraqi military officers and others most capable of doing so had no interest in anything more than limited outside help. Over the past decade, Prince Turki said, he and other senior Saudi officials had "countless times" sought American support for what he portrayed as a workable approach to ousting the Iraqi leader, in which the only American role would be to prevent Iraq from using its air forces against its opponents.

"We've always proposed to your country that there are ways of getting rid of Saddam," Prince Turki said. "There is no lack of Iraqis who are willing to do that, many of them in the armed forces.

"They have two conditions. One condition is that once they start an operation, Saddam is denied the use of air power against them. And the second condition is that once they start an operation, that no outside interference is allowed. And from 1990 until today, we've been saying that to your people, without any response."

Some Saudi officials have expressed skepticism about what American officials say is solid evidence that 15 of the 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks were Saudi citizens. But Prince Turki made no effort today to question that claim, and said that the participation of so many Saudis was "the most disturbing and the most painful" aspect of what happened.

"We can look at ourselves and say my goodness these are people who grew up here, who went to school here, who have families here, and look at what they have done. Of course, there is a need for introspection. Let us see where we went wrong," he said.

"But I can tell you this. We will find an answer. It is in the tradition and the heritage of this kingdom to always find answers, and to carry on from there."


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