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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

One of America's most important friends in the Middle East chose this week to critic the war in Iraq. Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah called it, quote, "an illegitimate foreign occupation," which leads to the question of why the Saudis would speak out now? The statement happened in the midst of a Saudi effort to encourage peace between Israelis and Palestinians. And when we put our question to Rachel Bronson of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, she immediately saw the statement about Iraq in terms of that other conflict.

Why would King Abdullah choose now to say that what the United States is doing in Iraq is illegal?

Ms. RACHEL BRONSON (Chicago Council on Global Affairs): There's a number of reasons why he may have decided to say it now. I mean, the first is he's pushing through a Saudi plan or an Arab League plan to try to soften some of the rougher edges of an Israel-Palestinian deal. He's beginning to move away from right of return and talk about a just solution, which is a small issue, but it's certainly an important one in the Arab world. And he may feel that, at this moment, it's important for him that he distance himself a little from the United States.

INSKEEP: I want to try to figure this out. Because you're talking about two separate conflicts, one in Iraq and the other, the Israel-Palestinian conflict. You're saying that King Abdullah seems to be moving toward a concession for Israel that might make him less popular in the Arab world, and so, to bolster his popularity again, he's critical of the United States.

Ms. BRONSON: Well, I think that when the Saudis and many Arabs look around regional, these issues are very much tied. And so, if he believes that softening Arab demands on right of return is important, he has to have some distance from the Unites States.

INSKEEP: And then, of course, this is one of the most intractable issues in the Middle East conflict, whether Palestinians would have, as part of a peace settlement, the right to return to their former homes inside what is now Israel.

Ms. BRONSON: That is right. And he - they're still talking about some sort of just solution. But, again, it's really important to go back that he - over the last few years now - he has not pushed hard for that term, and that's quite important to this discussion.

INSKEEP: Now, whenever a Middle Eastern government criticizes the United States, it's common for American officials to say well, they say that in public because they have to appease their public or take care of their political considerations, but privately, they tell us something else.

Do you think that might be the case here?

Ms. BRONSON: No, I think that what they are saying is they are very uncomfortable with American policy in Iraq. They do not…

INSKEEP: So, we could take this is a serious statement over Iraq?

Ms. BRONSON: I think it's a very serious statement. I think it is a statement that America's current policy in Iraq is not serving anybody particularly well, and they will say that publicly, and they will say that privately. Now, what to do about it is a quiet conversation going on. And so, they would be talking about a plan for ratcheting down forces and, over time, going home. But I think that's something that the administration would comfortably be talking about as well.

INSKEEP: Can I just check on a possible contradiction here? The Saudis are saying more strongly than ever that they think that the U.S. presence in Iraq is wrong. But you're saying they don't want the U.S. to leave tomorrow.

Ms. BRONSON: Well, that's why I want to see what follows up. Because the Saudi position has actually been that we should extricate ourselves over time, but not precipitously. And now, that's what I'm watching, what King Abdullah means by his saying that it's illegal. Is it illegal - so we should pack up and go home tomorrow? Which would be a dramatic chance in policy for the Saudi. Or is he saying, it's illegal so you need to find a way to slowly remove yourself from the situation, with an emphasis on slowly. In which case, is not that great of a change. So, it's potentially a bombshell if he means you should pack up and go home tomorrow.

INSKEEP: Rachel Bronson is Author of "Thicker Than Oil: America's Uneasy Partnership With Saudi Arabia." Thanks very much.

Ms. BRONSON: Thanks so much.

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