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House simmers with criticism for Saudi Arabia

House simmers with criticism for Saudi Arabia
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House lawmakers appear eager for an opportunity to beat up on Saudi Arabia, amid persistent allegations about the kingdom’s support for international terrorism.

Legislators from both parties took shots at the kingdom during a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, in what could presage a one-sided effort to pass legislation opening the kingdom up to legal jeopardy for alleged activity ahead of 9/11.

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“If a foreign country — any country — can be shown to have significantly supported a terrorist attack on the United States, the victims and their families ought to be able to sue that foreign country, no matter who it is,” said Rep. Ted PoeLloyd (Ted) Theodore PoeCook shifts two House GOP seats closer to Dem column Five races to watch in the Texas runoffs Five Republican run-offs to watch in Texas MORE (R-Texas), the head of the subcommittee on Terrorism and a co-sponsor of the bill that would allow 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia. “Like any other issue, we should let a jury decide that issue and the damages, if any.”

“What concerns me is the Saudi government comes to us and say ‘You’re our friend and you should protect us from this statute,’ while defending every day the Wahhabi mullahs who not only preach orthodox practices of Islam, but preach violence and murder against those whom they disagree with,” added Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.)

“It is time for Saudi Arabia to come clean,” Sherman said. “They can’t say they don’t support terrorism; all they do is fund hundreds of millions of dollars a year for those who plant the seeds of terrorism around the world.”

The hearing on Tuesday, which was attended by family members of 9/11 victims, was the first formal House action on the matter since the Senate unexpectedly approved legislation opening the door for lawsuits against Saudi Arabia over suspected support for extremists ahead of 9/11. The White House has pledged to veto the bill and Saudi Arabia has warned that it could lead to dire consequences.

But many House lawmakers appear unmoved.

“The Saudis and the Saudi royal families have been right up to their eyeballs in supporting the terrorist activity of radical Islamic forces in the Middle East,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.). “It won’t get better unless we’re willing to step up and basically let the American people know who’s the bad guy, who's the good guy in the age of terrorism.”

There have never been firm links made between the Saudi royal family and the 19 al Qaeda hijackers on Sept. 11, 2001, and the kingdom has vehemently disputed allegations about a connection. In recent days, it has launched a frenzied lobbying blitz claiming that any allegations are mere hearsay, and that Riyadh has been a critical partner in fighting radical Islamic terrorism. 

But the dominant form of Islam in Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism, is the same severe form practiced by many extremists. And speculation has long simmered that 28 classified pages from a congressional inquiry into 9/11 will shed new light on connections between the government and al Qaeda. Portions of those pages are expected to be released in coming weeks.

Still, there is clearly some skepticism about the bill on Capitol Hill, despite the unanimous support it received in the Senate.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) warned lawmakers against taking up the bill before being sure about whether a lawsuit could go forward.

“If we look at it and allow discovery — the poking-around of a typical trial lawyer’s look-see — then the rest of the world will likely respond,” Issa said on Tuesday. Discovery is the formal name for the evidence-gathering process of a legal proceeding.

“When the rest of the world likely responds, there is no question that the actions of U.S. persons or U.S. entities, including but not limited to our intelligence community, will have us in courts around the world.”

Issa’s warning partially echoed that of the White House, which has said that the legislation would degrade sovereign immunity protections.

The bill exposing Saudi Arabia to legal claims is currently pending in the Judiciary Committee, which is expected to hold a hearing on it this summer.