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Congress Pushing Bush on Saudi Arabia

WASHINGTON — The White House is standing by Saudi Arabia, even as congressional pressure mounts on the Bush administration to confront Riyadh’s alleged funding of Hamas.

Congressmen from both parties are demanding that the administration pressure the Saudi government into enforcing a decree issued by Crown Prince Abdullah more than a year ago ordering the cessation of official support for Hamas. In addition, American lawmakers want the White House to push for an end to all private Saudi support for the militant Palestinian group.

White House officials, meanwhile, are defending Saudi Arabia.

Asked last week about alleged Saudi funding of Hamas, White House press secretary Scott McClellan admitted that there is room for progress, but added: “Saudi Arabia has been working closely with us and cooperatively in the war on terrorism, including cracking down on terrorist financing.”

The press secretary also cited denials from Saudi officials that their government funds Hamas.

Despite such assurances from the White House, lawmakers say they are particularly concerned with massive Saudi funding of charities that are associated with Hamas. These charities are officially involved in social services, but Israeli and American intelligence services have argued that Hamas’s military wing uses funds raised by Islamic charities.

“You feed one part, you feed all of it,” said Rep. Gary Ackerman, a New York Democrat, in an interview with the Forward. “We have to call the Saudis on it and make sure that there is no money going into Hamas’s wings and branches. The Saudis have not been cooperative on that at all. It is of growing concern, and the fact that the administration is taking no action basically gives license to the Saudis to continue down the same road.”

Ackerman, the ranking Democrat on the House subcommittee on the Middle East, said that there are measures that could be taken, including the freezing of Saudi assets in the United States, but experts say the administration is unlikely to take that step.

GOP legislators should be congratulated for insisting on Saudi accountability, Ackerman said, “because in effect when you do that, you’re criticizing the administration.”

According to senior Bush administration officials, who last week testified before a House subcommittee, since May the Saudi government has stopped funding Hamas and humanitarian charities close to the group. Administration officials say the Saudis are also trying to block Saudi nongovernmental organizations from raising private funds for Hamas, but add that it is tricky to clamp down on Saudi citizens.

The Treasury Department’s general counsel, David Aufhauser, who heads a Bush administration task force on terrorism funding, admitted to a House subcommittee on September 24 that as much as half of Hamas’s income is derived from the Persian Guld region.

But Aufhauser, with senior officials from the FBI, the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security, argued that since the May 12 Al Qaeda attacks in Saudi Arabia, there has been a “quantum change” in the Saudi authorities on the issue of funding terrorism. They have tightened their control over charity networks inside and outside the country, banning cash collection in mosques, and passing progressive anti-money laundering legislation.

Other progress has come in Europe, where, with American prodding, the European Union designated the military and other branches of Hamas as a terrorist organization on September 12.

Congressional Democrats are demanding that similar pressure be applied to Saudi Arabia. “For too long our country has turned a blind eye towards Saudi Arabia’s infidelities,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, during a protest vigil outside of the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Washington. “It is time for Saudi Arabia to end the facade of being innocent bystanders, and it is time that the United States uses all diplomatic and economic means to pressure the Saudis to do so.”

Critics of the Bush administration accuse the White House of not applying more pressure on Riyadh because of the president and vice president’s ties to the oil industry, and business ties that members of the first Bush administration have to Saudi Arabia.

Other observers noted that the Democratic presidential candidates have been slow to criticize the Bush administration for not doing more to change Saudi policy.

Meyrav Wurmser, who directs the Center for Middle East Policy at the conservative Hudson Institute in Washington said that because of oil interests: “No one really wants to make a reassessment of U.S.-Saudi relations. It’s just too threatening.”

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