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Saudis balk at U.S. rule for women

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Saudi officials warned they would not allow U.S. servicewomen to go around without a head-to-toe robe and criticized Washington for lifting the requirement that its female troops wear the garment.

A member of the Committee for the Preservation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, a government agency for enforcing Islamic law, said Thursday that all women must wear the robe, or "abaya" in Arabic, irrespective of religion, nationality or profession.

Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command, issued an order last week saying the abaya is no longer required for U.S. servicewomen in Saudi Arabia "but is strongly encouraged." The requirement dates from the 1990-91 Gulf crisis, when U.S. forces were first stationed in Saudi Arabia.

A Saudi military official on Thursday criticized Franks' move, saying the United States should have consulted the kingdom beforehand.

The U.S. decision is a violation of Saudi sovereignty and of Islamic law, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A U.S. Embassy official in Riyadh declined to comment. A U.S. Army spokesman in Saudi Arabia referred calls to Central Command headquarters in Florida.

The conflict over women's dress is the latest in a string of disputes between the two allies since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

U.S. media have criticized Riyadh for not arresting people connected to the terror attacks, despite the fact that more than half of the 19 hijackers involved were believed to be Saudi citizens. However, the Bush administration has publicly said it is pleased with Saudi cooperation.

Saudi officials, led by Crown Prince Abdullah, have responded by saying the campaign is led by those who oppose Saudi support for the Palestinian cause and the country's Islamic law.

Saudi newspapers have published numerous reports of the mistreatment of Saudi nationals in the United States who were arrested following the Sept. 11 attacks.

Some commanders of U.S. troops based in Saudi Arabia have ordered women under their command to wear the abaya, while others have left the decision to the servicewomen.

Women diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh are encouraged not to wear the abaya when on official business because they are representing the United States, embassy officials say. In their personal time, embassy employees can choose how to dress.

Saudi women appear in public fully veiled, showing only their eyes, hands and feet. Foreign women in the kingdom usually wear abayas at malls, markets and other public places in accordance with Saudi religious custom.

The highest-ranking female pilot in the U.S. air force has challenged the abaya rule in a Washington court. Lt. Col. Martha McSally argued the abaya policy was unconstitutional and said it improperly forced American women to conform to others' customs.

McSally's lawsuit did not inspire the policy change because it was already under review, Central Command spokesman Col. Rick Thomas said this week.