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They are called Occupation Forces but the Occupiers say Iraq is not Occupied

Saturday, March 31 2007 @ 12:42 AM CDT

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By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Thursday rejected Saudi Arabia's charge that Iraq is under an "illegitimate foreign occupation" and said U.S. troops are there at Iraq's invitation, under a U.N. mandate.

(WHAT MANDATE? Bush's only MANDATE was Ted Haggard)

"It is not accurate to say that the United States is occupying Iraq," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.

The cross-fire reflecting growing differences between the two long-time allies at a time when the Saudis are taking on a greater leadership role in the Middle East.

Saudi King Abdullah surprised Washington on Wednesday by telling an Arab summit that, "In beloved Iraq, blood flows between brothers in the shadow of illegitimate foreign occupation and hateful sectarianism, threatening a civil war."

Perino said the United States and Saudi Arabia have a close and cooperative relationship but made clear the Bush administration did not agree with the king's statement.

"When it comes to the coalition forces being in Iraq, we are there under the U.N. Security Council resolutions and at the invitation of the Iraqi people," she said.

Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, acknowledged the administration was "a little surprised to see those remarks" and would seek clarification from the Saudis.

He said it was possible the king's comments might have been misinterpreted as a result of translation problems or could have been misreported by the media but expressed confidence the episode would not disrupt cooperation between Washington and Riyadh.

Asked whether the United States was worried by Abdullah's statement, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Washington was operating well within the boundaries of international law and under U.N. Security Council resolutions in Iraq.

"We want to understand what the thinking is behind it," said McCormack of the king's statement.

He said the United States had encouraged Saudi Arabia to increase its involvement in Iraq.

Iraq's government was also concerned.

"We differ with his majesty on this ... This presence is sanctioned by the international community and Security Council resolutions and with consent and support of Iraqi people and Iraqi government," Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari told Reuters in Riyadh.

"Nobody will gain anything by Iraq's failure. This attitude of simply being a spectator is not helpful," Zebari said.

The king's speech was only the latest sign of a split between Washington and its key oil supplier and traditional Middle East ally.

Last month, Saudi Arabia played host in Mecca to talks that led to an agreement between the Islamist group Hamas and the Fatah group of U.S.-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to form a unity government to end Palestinian infighting.

The agreement caused problems for Washington because it enhanced the status of Hamas, which the Bush administration sees as a terrorist organization.

(Additional reporting by Sue Pleming and Carol Giacomo in Washington and Andrew Hammond in Riyadh.)




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