RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) – A U.S. delegation led by Vice President Dick Cheney paid respects Friday to King Abdullah, a visit intended to show the importance Washington attaches to close ties with oil power Saudi Arabia.

Cheney, former President Bush and former Secretary of State Colin Powell offered condolences on the death Monday of the new monarch’s half brother, King Fahd.

Reporters were barred from the meeting at the king’s farm outside Riyadh, but the official Saudi Press Agency said the two sides discussed Iraq, bilateral relations, and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Cheney invited Abdullah to visit President Bush at the White House, the agency said.

Spain’s King Juan Carlos also met Friday with Abdullah, who embraced him warmly in footage broadcast on Spanish television. Juan Carlos was a longtime friend of Fahd.

Saudi Arabia is a major U.S. ally in the Middle East. As crown prince, Abdullah worked to repair ties strained by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, in which 15 of the 19 attackers were Saudis. The Bush family has had close ties with the Saudi royal family for decades.

After Abdullah’s investiture on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said he expected U.S.-Saudi relations to continue improving. On Thursday, Prince Salman, Abdullah’s half brother and governor of Riyadh, said relations between the two nations were “strong but sometimes troubled.”

“The two leaderships pretty well know that their relations are strategic because they are based on mutual interests,” Salman told journalists.

Abdullah last visited the United States in April when he promised President Bush that Saudi Arabia would do what it could to help ease oil prices, which subsequently soared above $60 a barrel. The kingdom is now pumping about 9.5 million barrels a day.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have maintained strategic ties based on oil for security since 1945, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt met Abdullah’s father, Abdel-Aziz bin Saud.

The strength of the relationship was demonstrated in the 1991 Gulf War when Cheney, then defense secretary, and Powell, then head of the U.S. armed forces, persuaded Fahd to allow the deployment of American forces in the kingdom as part of the campaign to expel the Iraqi army from Kuwait. The deployment was strongly opposed by radical Islamic Saudis, such as al-Qaida terror leader Osama bin Laden.

Senior clerics called on Saudis Friday to take their “bayah,” or oath of allegiance, to Abdullah, saying it was a religious duty.

Tens of thousands of Saudis – tribal chiefs, Islamic clerics, army commanders and commoners – have been flocking to the Riyadh governor’s palace to pledge loyalty to Abdullah, vowing to “hear and obey” the new king.

Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Seedes, the imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, went so far as to compare the oath to the king to that taken by Muslims to the Prophet Muhammad 14 centuries ago.

“I urge all Muslims to take the ‘bayah’ because it is part of the creed and a religious duty,” al-Seedes said in his Friday sermon, broadcast live on television. He added that those who failed to take the oath would go to their graves as non-Muslims.

Sheik Abdul Mohsen al-Obeigan, a cleric who is close to the royal family, called on women to take the oath – an unusual request as expressions of allegiance are the duty of men in Islamic tradition.

The Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq al-Awsat reported that some 2.5 million Saudis took the oath in the first two days after Fahd’s death.

AP-ES-08-05-05 1653EDT


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