King Abdullah's harsh -- and unexpected -- attack on the U.S. military presence in Iraq could be a Saudi attempt to signal to Washington its anger over the situation in Iraq and build credibility among fellow Arabs.
The White House, in a rare public retort Thursday, rejected the king's characterization of U.S. troops in Iraq as an "illegitimate foreign occupation," saying the United States was not in Iraq illegally.
"The United States and Saudi Arabia have a close and cooperative relationship on a wide range of issues," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said. "And 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."
"We disagree with them," Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told senators. "We were a little surprised to see those remarks."
The king made his remarks Wednesday at the opening session of the two-day Arab summit his country hosted in Riyadh. It was believed to be the first time the king publicly expressed that opinion.
"In beloved Iraq, blood is flowing between brothers, in the shadow of an illegitimate foreign occupation, and abhorrent sectarianism threatens a civil war," said Abdullah, whose country is a U.S. ally that quietly aided the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
The next day, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani bristled at the comment in his speech to the summit, saying the term occupation has "negative implications" and is "in contradiction" to the vision of "Iraqi patriotic and national forces."
A Saudi official said the king was speaking as the president of the summit and his remarks reflected general frustration with the "patchwork" job the Americans were doing to end violence in Iraq.
The king also wanted to send a message that Iraq is an issue that Arabs cannot turn their back on, the official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
It was not clear what kind of diplomatic fallout could result -- but the comments did nothing to help bring Arab nations closer to the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shiite.
The summit has taken a tough line on Iraq, demanding it change its constitution and military to include more Sunnis and end a program of uprooting former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party.
The Sunni-led governments of the Arab world have long been suspicious of Iraq's Shiite leadership, blaming it for fueling violence by discriminating against Sunni Arabs and accusing it of helping mainly Shiite Iran extend its influence in the region.
Abdullah's remarks came at a time when the kingdom is taking a more public role in efforts to defuse crises threatening to engulf the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia sponsored a reconciliation accord between Palestinian factions, has engaged Iran about its nuclear program, and has tried to settle simmering tensions in Lebanon. And the kingdom has been talking to various factions in Iraq.
Writers in some Arab media suggested before the summit that Saudi Arabia would seek solutions that would cater to U.S. interests.
"The king's remarks are the biggest proof that those accusations were false," said Dawood al-Shirian, a Saudi analyst. "In the issue of Iraq, Saudi Arabia went far beyond most other Arab countries. It went beyond the details and right to the cause."
Al-Shirian said he expected other Arab countries to follow Saudi Arabia's lead in considering the presence of U.S. troops an illegal occupation.
"If Saudi Arabia didn't blame the occupation, the blame would fall on the Iraqis, who are victims. How can you blame the victim?" he asked.
The U.S. called its presence in Iraq an occupation until the June 2004 handover of sovereignty to the Iraqis. U.S. troops remained in Iraq with permission from the Iraqi government and a mandate from the United Nations.
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal stood by the king's remarks Thursday, implying at some points that Iraq's Shiite-led government doesn't have the legitimacy to approve the U.S. presence.
"If that country had chosen to have those troops, then it's something else. But any military action that is not requested by a specific country -- that is the definition of occupation," al-Faisal told reporters.