U.S. con­cerned Iran-Saudi proxy war could en­gulf Iraq Early coali­tion exit could heighten sec­tar­ian strife

The Washington Times Weekly - - From Page One - By Sharon Behn

U.S. and Iraqi of­fi­cials fear the sec­tar­ian con­flict in Iraq will be­come a proxy war pit­ting Saudi Ara­bia and other Sunni Mus­lim na­tions against Shi’ite Iran if a U.S. draw­down in Iraq leaves a weak gov­ern­ment in place.

The con­flict also threat­ens to strengthen al Qaeda in Iraq, which is seen as sup­port­ing the Sun­nis in their fight against the steady ex­pan­sion of Ira­nian in­flu­ence over Iraq’s Shi’ite-led gov­ern­ment, said one Iraqi Sunni ex­ile close to the in­sur­gency.

“It is a re­li­gious war,” said the ex­ile, who added that Sunni tribal lead­ers in Saudi Ara­bia are al­ready fund­ing Sunni in­sur­gents in Iraq.

U.N. Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral Kofi An­nan on Dec. 8 said the es­ca­lat­ing vi­o­lence in Iraq made a re­gional war more likely.

“High lev­els of civil­ian ca­su­al­ties and dis­place­ment on a daily ba­sis are breed­ing an in­creas­ing sense of in­se­cu­rity and deep pes­simism among Iraqis,” Mr. An­nan said.

“The prospects of all-out civil war and even a re­gional con­flict have be­come much more real” since Mr. An­nan’s last re­port, is­sued three months ago, he said.

One Iraqi gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial said he could see sev­eral Sunni Arab coun­tries ex­tend­ing ties — po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic, moral and other kinds of sup­port — to Sunni groups in Iraq.

“The present sit­u­a­tion in Iraq is very dan­ger­ous — a lack of a vi­able gov­ern­ment in Iraq leaves it open for oth­ers to in­crease their in­flu­ence in the coun­try, and it has al­ready opened a door to a wave of Shi’ite na­tion­al­ism,” the of­fi­cial said, speak­ing on the con­di­tion of anonymity.

In a Nov. 29 op-ed ar­ti­cle in The Wash­ing­ton Post, Nawaf Obaid, an ad­viser to the Saudi gov­ern­ment, said that if the United States leaves Iraq be­fore the right time, “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,” added Mr. Obaid, who was sub­se­quently fired as an ad­viser by the Saudi gov­ern­ment. “It could spark a re­gional war. So be it: The con­se­quences of in­ac­tion are far worse.”

But Ka­mal Nawash, pres­i­dent of the Free Mus­lims Coali­tion, a Wash­ing­ton-based ad­vo­cacy group, said he did not think the re­gion’s Sunni gov­ern­ments want to be di­rectly in­volved in Iraq.

“Their modus operandi is money from wealthy in­di­vid­u­als,” he said, pre­dict­ing that large sums of money would be­gin flow­ing from Saudi Ara­bia and the Gulf states to as­sist the Sun­nis in Iraq.

All of Iraq’s pre­dom­i­nantly Sunni neigh­bors are get­ting in­creas­ingly ner­vous about the growth of Shi’ite na­tion­al­ism led by Iran’s theo­cratic regime.

“Shi’ites in the Mid­dle East have ba­si­cally been pow­er­less since the be­gin­ning of time, and many of them see that for the first time in his­tory, the tide is chang­ing in their fa­vor,” Mr. Nawash said.

“For the first time, there is real con­cern about the fu­ture. Iran is be­ing pretty ag­gres­sive in im­pos­ing its will, and it is not even that strong now. So they are think­ing, ‘Imag­ine if it be­comes a real re­gional power — it could be un­stop­pable,’ ” he said.

In­com­ing De­fense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates said dur­ing his con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing that his great­est worry was that “if we mis­han­dle the next year or two and leave Iraq in chaos [. . .]a variety of re­gional pow­ers will be­come in­volved in Iraq, and we will have a re­gional con­flict on our hands.”

High-rank­ing Iraqi of­fi­cials told the As­so­ci­ated Press that Saudi money from private do­na­tions is al­ready be­ing used to buy weapons such as the Rus­sian shoul­der-fired Strela anti-air­craft mis­siles.

The money is be­ing dis­bursed through Sunni cler­ics, Sunni po­lit­i­cal lead­ers or di­rectly to the in­sur­gents, the AP re­ported.

Saudi gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials have de­nied that their coun­try is a ma­jor source of fi­nan­cial sup­port to Iraq’s in­sur­gents.

It has also been sug­gested that the Saudis might use their oil mus­cle to counter Iran’s grow­ing in­flu­ence over Iraq.

Mr. Obaid, in his com­men­tary ar­ti­cle, said Riyadh could boost its oil pro­duc­tion enough to cut the price in half. That would dras­ti­cally cut Iran’s oil in­come and thus its abil­ity to sup­port Shi’ite mili­tias in Iraq, he said.

Ed O’Con­nell, a se­nior an­a­lyst at the Rand Corp., said the Saudi gov­ern­ment could get di­rectly in­volved, pos­si­bly by de­ploy­ing its air force closer to Iraq’s east­ern border with Iran.

“You have to look at the sym­me­try of the sit­u­a­tion — if the Saudis in­tro­duce air power, it would be a bal­anc­ing power. You have to look at the re­sources that can be mus­tered on both sides. Th­ese would be indicators that things could go south,” Mr. O’Con­nell said.

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