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Saudi denounces US agenda behind bombing campaign
By Ewen MacAskill in London

    January 1, 2002

     A senior Saudi Arabian former diplomat has charged the United States with seeking to control Afghanistan and contain Pakistan's nuclear program and Iran, as speculation grows that Washington could lose its most vital Arab support base. In an almost unprecedented criticism of US foreign policy, Mohammad al-Oteibi, the former Saudi ambassador to Kabul, said Osama bin Laden "is only a card in the game played by the United States and of which it has convinced the world to justify intervention in Afghanistan".
     "If the United States had wanted to arrest bin Laden, they could have done so easily without taking the trouble to launch this fanciful war ... they could have caught him long ago," he said. The response to the September11 attacks in the United States was intended "to impose [American] hegemony on [Afghanistan] and to set [Americans] up there to achieve their objectives" in Asia, the former envoy said. These objectives included containing "the threat of the Pakistan nuclear program and Iran", as well as "the exploitation of the riches of Afghanistan and the republics of central Asia", Mr Oteibi told a London-based Saudi-owned newspaper.
     His comments followed reports that Saudi Arabia's rulers were preparing to ask the US to pull its forces out of the kingdom because they have become a political liability. Any such move would throw US strategy in the Middle East into disarray. The White House and the US State Department insist the military arrangement between the two countries is still working. The White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said President George Bush "believes that our presence in the region has a very helpful and stabilising effect".
     Relations between the US and Saudi Arabia, its closest Arab ally but also with close ties to bin Laden, have been severely strained since September 11. The US is reluctant to withdraw its 4500 troops from the Prince Sultan air base, south of the capital, Riyadh, because it could be perceived as a propaganda victory for bin Laden, who often protested at the presence of non-believers so near the main Muslim holy sites.
     But the increasingly brittle and vulnerable ruling House of Saud is nervous about an internal revolt by bin Laden's al-Qaeda terror network and other extremist militants, and has been publicly loosening its links with Washington. The huge Prince Sultan air base played a crucial logistical role in the bombing of Afghanistan. Withdrawal would upset the military balance in the Middle East by providing a boost to the Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein. US aircraft based in Saudi Arabia regularly bomb along the Iraqi border as part of its policy of containment of Saddam.
     Many Americans have been upset with Saudi Arabia because it is bin Laden's home country and 15 of the 19 terrorists involved in the September 11 attacks were from the kingdom. Saudi media have reported that about 200 Saudis have been captured in Afghanistan fighting with al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The kingdom is volatile, with a stagnant economy, high unemployment, no democratic outlets and King Fahd unable to crack down on militant clerics.    

The Guardian, Agence France-Presse