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    Middle East
     Dec 19, 2006
Page 1 of 2
The coming Sunni-Shi'ite showdown
By Jason Motlagh

WASHINGTON - After indications that Saudi Arabia would be forced to step into Iraq in the event of a US withdrawal to counter Iran-backed Shi'ite militias, Saudi officials have been silent. But the message is clear, despite a haze of diplomatic intrigue in Washington: Arab Sunni governments are rallying to stymie Tehran's influence across the Middle East in what is shaping up to be a showdown.

US failures in Iraq have stretched the world's most formidable

military and soured public opinion both abroad and at home, as the Iraq Study Group (ISG) report confirms. Observers say Iran now has the initiative in its campaign to establish itself as the anchor of a "Shi'ite crescent" extending through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean. These concerns are heightened by the possibility Iran will develop nuclear weapons in the coming years.

In anticipation of ISG recommendations for a US troop drawdown, Nawaf Obaid, then managing director of the Saudi National Security Assessment in Riyadh, wrote in a November 29 Washington Post op-ed that if the US pulls out of Iraq, "one of the first consequences will be massive Saudi intervention to stop Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias from butchering Iraqi Sunnis".

"To be sure, Saudi engagement in Iraq carries great risks - it could spark a regional war," he noted. "So be it: the consequences of inaction are far worse."

Obaid, the Saudi government's senior strategic adviser at the time, cited an array of Arab leaders from Egypt, Jordan and other Arab Muslim countries that have lobbied Riyadh to protect the minority Sunni community in Iraq and thwart Iran, whose Revolutionary Guard is known to have supported Shi'ite militias with arms, funding and advisers.

The findings of the ISG report, released one week later, cemented the Saudis' worst fears: US public opinion has consolidated against the Iraq war, making a phased withdrawal almost certain to begin by 2008. Yet at a time when solidarity within the Saudi government and among its Sunni Arab allies is critical, there appears to have been a break in the ranks.

In his article, Obaid quoted Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, Prince Turki al-Faisal, who said in a speech last month that "since America came into Iraq uninvited, it should not leave Iraq uninvited". Turki subsequently fired Obaid from his post on the op-ed's publication, before resigning and leaving Washington himself.

According to Stratfor, a private intelligence agency, "deep divisions" exist between Prince Turki and King Abdullah over the best strategies to protect Saudi interests in light of US involvement in Iraq. Underpinning their differences are clan rivalries within the Saudi political structure; Turki is said to be in line for the post of foreign minister held by his ailing brother, Prince Saud al-Faisal.

Former ambassador Prince Bandar is also said to be positioning himself for the foreign minister's post, and if King Abdullah were to choose him over Turki, the al-Faisal clan - one of three top clans - would be ousted from the royal hierarchy.

Regardless of how internal succession politics play out, there is little doubt the resonant op-ed reflects official Saudi policy. Last month, Prince Turki was left out of a snap meeting between King Abdullah and US Vice President Dick Cheney in Riyadh in which the monarch insisted that the consequences of a US drawdown would be far worse than those of staying the course. The Saudis are also said to have pushed hard for a meeting between US President George W Bush and Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a moderate Sunni cleric with close ties to the Saudi regime.

That Saudi Arabia would actively support the same Sunni insurgents who have viciously fought and killed US forces based in Iraq is not far-fetched. Sunni Muslims in the Arabian Peninsula have strong historical and communal ties with Iraqi Sunnis currently threatened by Shi'ite militias and would not stand by idle were wholesale killing to ensue. Moreover, there is legitimate fear that a Shi'ite-dominated Iraq under the influence of Iran would pose a serious threat to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

"The Saudis are wholly dependent on the United States for their national security and rely on US troops to block Iran from advancing beyond Iraq and into the oil-rich Saudi deserts," according to Stratfor. "Without a buffer zone in Iraq, Riyadh's need for US troops in Iraq soars."

The Saudis have been a faithful ally in the Bush administration's "war on terror" and a vital source of oil, all of which will not be

Continued 1 2 

Soured Sunni deal ends one US option (Dec 15, '06)

Odd bedfellows: Bush woos Shi'ite leader (Dec 7, '06)

Saudi-Iran tension fuels wider conflict (Dec 6, '06)

Civil wars or proxy wars? (Dec 5, '06)


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