Although Bush administration officials have frequently lashed out at Syria and Iran, accusing it of helping insurgents and militias here, the largest number of foreign fighters and suicide bombers in Iraq come from a third neighbor, Saudi Arabia, according to a senior U.S. military officer and Iraqi lawmakers.
About 45% of all foreign militants targeting U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians and security forces are from Saudi Arabia; 15% are from Syria and Lebanon; and 10% are from North Africa, according to official U.S. military figures made available to The Times by the senior officer. Nearly half of the 135 foreigners in U.S. detention facilities in Iraq are Saudis, he said.
Fighters from Saudi Arabia are thought to have carried out more suicide bombings than those of any other nationality, said the senior U.S. officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the subject’s sensitivity. It is apparently the first time a U.S. official has given such a breakdown on the role played by Saudi nationals in Iraq’s Sunni Arab insurgency.
He said 50% of all Saudi fighters in Iraq come here as suicide bombers. In the last six months, such bombings have killed or injured 4,000 Iraqis.
The situation has left the U.S. military in the awkward position of battling an enemy whose top source of foreign fighters is a key ally that at best has not been able to prevent its citizens from undertaking bloody attacks in Iraq, and at worst shares complicity in sending extremists to commit attacks against U.S. forces, Iraqi civilians and the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.
The problem casts a spotlight on the tangled web of alliances and enmities that underlie the political relations between Muslim nations and the U.S.
In the 1980s, the Saudi intelligence service sponsored Sunni Muslim fighters for the U.S.-backed Afghan mujahedin battling Soviet troops in Afghanistan. At the time, Saudi intelligence cultivated another man helping the Afghan fighters, Osama bin Laden, the future leader of Al Qaeda who would one day turn against the Saudi royal family and mastermind the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon. Indeed, Saudi Arabia has long been a source of a good portion of the money and manpower for Al Qaeda: 15 of the 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks were Saudi.
Now, a group that calls itself Al Qaeda in Iraq is the greatest short-term threat to Iraq’s security, U.S. military spokesman Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner said Wednesday.
The group, one of several Sunni Muslim insurgent groups operating in Baghdad and beyond, relies on foreigners to carry out suicide attacks because Iraqis are less likely to undertake such strikes, which the movement hopes will provoke sectarian violence, Bergner said. Despite its name, the extent of the group’s links to Bin Laden’s network, based along the Afghan-Pakistani frontier, is unclear.
The Saudi government does not dispute that some of its youths are ending up as suicide bombers in Iraq, but says it has done everything it can to stop the bloodshed.
“Saudis are actually being misused. Someone is helping them come to Iraq. Someone is helping them inside Iraq. Someone is recruiting them to be suicide bombers. We have no idea who these people are. We aren’t getting any formal information from the Iraqi government,” said Gen. Mansour Turki, spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry.
“If we get good feedback from the Iraqi government about Saudis being arrested in Iraq, probably we can help,” he said.
Defenders of Saudi Arabia pointed out that it has sought to control its lengthy border with Iraq and has fought a bruising domestic war against Al Qaeda since Sept. 11.
“To suggest they’ve done nothing to stem the flow of people into Iraq is wrong,” said a U.S. intelligence official in Washington, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “People do get across that border. You can always ask, ‘Could more be done?’ But what are they supposed to do, post a guard every 15 or 20 paces?”
Others contend that Saudi Arabia is allowing fighters sympathetic to Al Qaeda to go to Iraq so they won’t create havoc at home.
Iraqi Shiite lawmaker Sami Askari, an advisor to Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, accused Saudi officials of a deliberate policy to sow chaos in Baghdad.
“The fact of the matter is that Saudi Arabia has strong intelligence resources, and it would be hard to think that they are not aware of what is going on,” he said.
Askari also alleged that imams at Saudi mosques call for jihad, or holy war, against Iraq’s Shiites and that the government had funded groups causing unrest in Iraq’s largely Shiite south. Sunni extremists regard Shiites as unbelievers.
Other Iraqi officials said that though they believed Saudi Arabia, a Sunni fundamentalist regime, had no interest in helping Shiite-ruled Iraq, it was not helping militants either. But some Iraqi Shiite leaders say the Saudi royal family sees the Baghdad government as a proxy for its regional rival, Shiite-ruled Iran, and wants to unseat it.
With its own border with Iraq largely closed, Saudi fighters take what is now an established route by bus or plane to Syria, where they meet handlers who help them cross into Iraq’s western deserts, the senior U.S. military officer said.
He suggested it was here that Saudi Arabia could do more, by implementing rigorous travel screenings for young Saudi males. Iraqi officials agreed.
“Are the Saudis using all means possible? Of course not.... And we think they need to do more, as does Syria, as does Iran, as does Jordan,” the senior officer said. An estimated 60 to 80 foreign fighters cross into Iraq each month, according to the U.S. military.
“It needs to be addressed by the government of Iraq head on. They have every right to stand up to a country like Saudi Arabia and say, ‘Hey, you are killing thousands of people by allowing your young jihadists to come here and associate themselves with an illegal worldwide network called Al Qaeda.”
Both the White House and State Department declined to comment for this article.
Turki, the Saudi spokesman, defended the right of his citizens to travel without restriction.
“If you leave Saudi Arabia and go to other places and find somebody who drags them to Iraq, that is a problem we can’t do anything about,” Turki said. He added that security officials could stop people from leaving the kingdom only if they had information on them.
U.S. officials had not shared with Iraqi officials information gleaned from Saudi detainees, but this has started to change, said an Iraqi source, who asked not to be identified. For example, U.S. officials provided information about Saudi fighters and suicide bombers to Iraqi security officials who traveled to Saudi Arabia last week.
Iraqi advisor Askari asserted that Vice President Dick Cheney, in a visit to Saudi Arabia in May, pressured officials to crack down on militant traffic to Iraq. But that message has not yet produced results, Askari said.
The close relationship between the U.S. and oil-rich Saudi Arabia has become increasingly difficult.
Saudi leaders in early February undercut U.S. diplomacy in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute by brokering, in Mecca, an agreement to form a Fatah-Hamas “unity” government in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. And King Abdullah took Americans by surprise by declaring at an Arab League gathering that the U.S. presence in Iraq was illegitimate.
U.S. officials remain sensitive about the relationship. Asked why U.S. officials in Iraq had not publicly criticized Saudi Arabia the way they had Iran or Syria, the senior military officer said, “Ask the State Department. This is a political juggernaut.”
Last week when U.S. military spokesman Bergner declared Al Qaeda in Iraq the country’s No. 1 threat, he released a profile of a thwarted suicide bomber, but said he had not received clearance to reveal his nationality. The bomber was a Saudi national, the senior military officer said Saturday.
Would-be suicide bomber
The fighter, a young college graduate whose mother was a teacher and father a professor, had been recruited in a mosque to join Al Qaeda in Iraq. He was given money for a bus ticket and a phone number to call in Syria to contact a handler who would smuggle him into Iraq.
Once the young Saudi made it in, he was under the care of Iraqis who gave him his final training and indoctrination. At the very last minute, the bomber decided he didn’t want to blow himself up. He was supposed to have been one of two truck bombers on a bridge outside Ramadi. When the first truck exploded, he panicked and chose not to trigger his own detonator, and Iraqi police arrested him.
Al Qaeda in Iraq and its affiliate groups number anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 individuals, the senior U.S. military officer said. Iraqis make up the majority of members, facilitating attacks, indoctrinating, fighting, but generally not blowing themselves up. Iraqis account for roughly 10% of suicide bombers, according to the U.S. military.
Times staff writers Paul Richter and Greg Miller in Washington contributed to this report.