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Saudis to open Iraq embassy, answers U.S. critics

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia said on Wednesday it would send a mission to explore opening an embassy in Baghdad, a move long sought by Washington, but said it was “astounded” by U.S. criticism of its Iraq policies.

At a joint news conference with the U.S. secretaries of state and defense, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal also said his country would take part in a U.S.-planned Middle East peace conference if it addressed meaningful issues.

He said Saudi Arabia would look closely at setting up diplomatic representation in Iraq for the first time since U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

“We just had a mission from Iraq in Saudi Arabia where we talked about security and where we decided that we will send a mission to Iraq to see how we can start our embassy in Iraq,” Prince Saud said, giving no more details.

Rice welcomed the move. “This is something that we have encouraged ... We believe that it is an important step.”

The United States has urged Sunni Arab states such as Saudi Arabia to open embassies in Baghdad as a sign of support for the Shi’ite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

Washington hopes such moves will send a signal to Iraqi Sunnis that Arab states view Maliki’s government as legitimate.

Sunni Arab powers harbor deep reservations about the Baghdad government, believing it to be sectarian and too close politically to Shi’ite-dominated Iran. A Sunni Arab group said on Wednesday it was withdrawing from Maliki’s cabinet.

FRUSTRATION

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said last month Saudi Arabia was undermining U.S. efforts to stabilize its northern neighbor.

“I was astounded by what he said,” Prince Saud said.

He countered U.S. suggestions Saudi Arabia could do more to stop militants crossing into Iraq from his country by saying Saudi Arabia feared militants infiltrating from Iraq.

“All we can do to protect the border in Iraq we have been doing,” he said. “What is needed is action on the other side.”

He also indicated Riyadh -- the world’s biggest oil exporter and home to Islam’s holiest sites -- expected Maliki to do more to help minority Sunnis in Iraq and halt the influence of Iran, accused by Washington of backing Shi’ite militias in Iraq.

“Success (in Iraq) depends on realizing social justice and national unity between all Iraqis ... The Iraqi government has a great responsibility ... to stop foreign interference,” he said.

Washington’s key Arab allies want more U.S. focus on resolving the historic Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Gates and Rice were on the second stop of a Middle East tour intended to reassure allies of U.S. commitment to the region despite Washington’s problems in Iraq and the growing strength of Iran, acting as a championing of the Palestinian cause.

They said a Saudi arms sales deal, expected to be worth at least $20 billion over 10 years, and new military aid packages for Israel and Egypt is a sign of their commitment.

Rice sought to play down U.S. complaints about Riyadh.

“We are good friends, we are allies, we’ve been so for decades,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that there won’t be disagreements about policy, tactics from time to time.”

Rice later arrived in Jerusalem for talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. The defense chief traveled to Kuwait where he met Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah and other Kuwaiti officials.

Additional reporting by Andrew Hammond and Diala Saadeh

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