Saudi Arabia struggles to determine Iraq policy

May 26, 2006|By MEGAN K. STACK | MEGAN K. STACK,LOS ANGELES TIMES

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- A stark dilemma lies before the rulers of this desert kingdom: How to insulate their land from the sectarian fighting in neighboring Iraq and yet find a way to counter Iran's swelling influence there.

Saudi rulers would probably prefer to avoid any involvement in Iraq. But there is a growing sense here that of all the Arab countries, Saudi Arabia is the most likely to get sucked in if the violence doesn't slow. A host of ideas, virtually all controversial, are now swirling about Riyadh, from funneling arms to Sunni militias in Iraq to improving ties with Iran.

As Iraq's minority Sunni Arabs are killed in growing numbers by Shiites in Iraq, Sunnis in Saudi Arabia - the cradle of Islam - are watching with alarm. Many are keen to protect their co-religionists across the border, a desire intensified by the tribal and family links that bind the two 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 has been a strategic disaster that has given power in Iraq to Shiite politicians, many of whom lived for years in Iran and have received money and other support from the Iranian regime. The Shiite renaissance in Iraq has placed Baghdad under the sway of Iranian clerics, threatening to destabilize Saudi Arabia.

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 the powerful Shiite paramilitary groups and alleged death squads. Aside from helping 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 because of the sensitivity of the topic. "If things got out of hand, we absolutely would."

But that idea is thorny. Many Saudis fear that the line separating Sunni militias from Sunni insurgents is wobbly if it exists at all. Any move by the kingdom to support Sunnis with ties to the insurgents who attack American troops could be disastrous in Washington, where critics of the Saudis already question their reliability as a U.S. ally.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia 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 weapons.

This kingdom has a history of sending "holy warriors" abroad to fight on behalf of embattled Sunnis. But in the past, 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 in Saudi Arabia.

Saudis who are squeamish about taking sides advocate opening aggressive discussions with Tehran, or even working out some sort of rapprochement with the Islamic Republic.

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 the sects in Iraq.

But so far, the rulers have remained silent on the subject. The notoriously secretive government has tried to steer clear of the political turmoil spilling from Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. It still hasn't opened an embassy in Baghdad, nor has it agreed to forgive debt owed by Iraq - more than $32 billion, making the Saudi government Iraq's single biggest creditor.

Saudi Arabia has pragmatic reasons to keep its distance from Baghdad's woes. Despite the chaos, 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 the new king, Abdullah, would deliver on long-standing promises of reform.

At the same time, the royal family and powerful Sunni clerics have spearheaded efforts to improve long-troubled relations with their own Shiite minority.

Although Shiites comprise less than 10 percent of the kingdom's total population, they are concentrated along the oil-rich eastern coast. And with the region already on edge, rulers are wary of provoking more bitterness between sects by siding too overtly with Iraq's Sunnis.

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

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