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Hands-Off or Not? Saudis Wring Theirs Over Iraq

Times Staff Writer

A stark dilemma lies before the rulers of this desert kingdom: how to insulate their land from the sectarian fighting in neighboring Iraq yet find a way to counter Iran’s swelling influence there.

Though Saudi rulers might prefer to avoid involvement in Iraq, there is a growing sense here that of all the Arab countries, Saudi Arabia is the most likely to be sucked in if the violence doesn’t slow. A host of ideas, virtually all of them controversial, are swirling around Riyadh, including funneling arms to Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and improving ties with Iran.

As growing numbers of Iraq’s minority Sunni Muslims are killed in their conflict with Shiite Muslims, Sunnis in Saudi Arabia -- the cradle of Islam -- are watching with alarm. Many are keen to protect their fellow Sunnis across the border, a desire intensified by the tribal and family links that bind the countries.

At the same time, Saudi rulers are deeply nervous about the growing power of Iran, a long-distrusted neighbor. To them, the U.S.-led war in Iraq has been a strategic disaster. The resulting power shift to Shiite politicians in Iraq, many of whom lived for years in Iran and received money and other support from that government, has placed Baghdad under the sway of Iranian clerics, they say, and that threatens to destabilize Saudi Arabia.

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Violence and Iranian influence in Iraq “will shake the base of society and drive Saudi Arabia to enter the war, with the United States or without,” said Abdullah Askar, a columnist and political science professor at King Saud University. “There is a misconception that we have a solid social base. We don’t. There are deep roots and viruses just waiting for the time to erupt and rise up.”

Among hard-liners, there is talk of organizing and funding Sunni militias in Iraq to fight powerful Shiite paramilitary groups and alleged death squads. Aside from helping to protect Sunnis, Saudi-backed gunmen could give the kingdom a foothold from which to fight Iranian influence.

“The option is for us to start arming and creating Sunni militias,” said a Saudi official who asked not to be named. “If things got out of hand, we absolutely would.”

But that idea is thorny. Many Saudis worry that the line separating Sunni militias from Sunni insurgents would be wobbly at best. Any move by the kingdom to support Sunnis with ties to the insurgents who attack American troops could be disastrous for Washington, where some already question Saudi Arabia’s reliability as a U.S. ally.

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Moreover, the kingdom is generally loath to pump up rebel groups for fear that the House of Saud would eventually find itself on the wrong end of an extremist’s weapon.

Saudi Arabia has a history of sending “holy warriors” abroad to fight on behalf of embattled Sunnis. But state-sponsored jihad has backfired against the royal family. Some of the Saudi men who received government cash and encouragement to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s drifted home and turned against the rulers. The “Arab Afghans,” including one named Osama bin Laden, imported the seeds of terrorism to Saudi Arabia.

Saudis uncomfortable with taking sides advocate opening aggressive discussions with Iran, or even working out some sort of rapprochement.

Others are calling on the Saudi government to exploit cross-border tribal links, which include connections to Shiites in Iraq’s south, to ease friction between Iraqi sects.

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But so far, the rulers have remained silent on the subject. The highly secretive government has tried to steer clear of the political turmoil since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. It still hasn’t opened an embassy in Baghdad, nor has it agreed to forgive Iraqi debt -- more than $32 billion, a figure that makes the Saudi government Iraq’s biggest creditor.

Saudi Arabia has pragmatic reasons for keeping its distance. While chaos has reigned in Iraq, Saudi Arabia has quietly prospered: High oil prices, driven up by the war, have flooded the kingdom with cash. Security forces seem to have made headway in quieting the insurgent attacks that plagued the kingdom. And the death of longtime ruler King Fahd last summer raised hopes that his successor, Abdullah, would deliver on long-standing promises of reform.

At the same time, the royal family and powerful Sunni clerics have led efforts to improve long-troubled relations with the kingdom’s Shiite minority.

Although Shiites make up less than 10% of Saudi Arabia’s population, they are concentrated along the oil-rich eastern coast. And with the region already on edge, rulers are wary of provoking more sectarian bitterness by siding too openly with Iraq’s Sunnis.

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“If we go and get involved,” said Abdelaziz Qasim, an outspoken cleric with reformist leanings, “we’ll face a lot of problems with the Shiites and Iran.”

Qasim sipped bitter cardamom coffee on a recent afternoon as he criticized the Saudi government for failing to soothe sectarian hostilities. He complained that when an attack on a Shiite shrine pushed Iraq to the edge of civil war in February, Sunni clerics in Saudi Arabia failed to criticize the bombing.

“The silence of the ulema about the violence in Iraq is interrupting our stability,” Qasim said, referring to religious scholars. “Such silence gives the wrong impression: that we have no concern for Shiite blood.... Shia won’t forgive us such silence.”

But Sunnis, too, might prove unforgiving. There is a palpable sense of rising impatience here over the government’s inability to protect the Sunnis in Iraq.

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“There’s no clear action or policy. The government is not saying anything, they don’t even say anything to the people,” said Awad Badi, research director at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies. “Maybe they are playing behind the scenes, but we don’t see anything.”

Badi, who grew up in the town of Al Jawf in northern Saudi Arabia, said he knew a 19-year-old from his hometown who last year asked his father’s permission to vacation in Jordan with his friends. “Then he calls saying, ‘I’m in Iraq and I’m ready to die,’ ” Badi said.

Many Saudis describe frustration over their government’s failure to infiltrate Iraqi politics. Many believe that such interference could create a counterweight to Iran’s influence.

“Iran is very strongly involved in Iraq,” said Ibrahim Qayid, who was elected to Riyadh’s municipal council in last year’s first-ever elections. “The Arab countries are not as strongly involved, and they should be.”

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Some Saudis are hoping the crisis will push the kingdom to assume a more hands-on role in the region. They believe that confusion over Iraq has highlighted a vacuum in Arab leadership, and they are pushing their government to set the tone for dealings with Baghdad.

“Are they realizing the burden of responsibility on them? The issue here is all about leadership, and the Saudis need to lead now because there’s no one left,” said Nawaf Obeid, a security advisor to the Saudi government. “Today, whatever Saudi Arabia decides to do will set the stage for how the Arabs deal with Iraq.”


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