Saudis Say They Might Back Sunnis if U.S. Leaves Iraq


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

December 13, 2006

Saudis Say They Might Back Sunnis if U.S. Leaves Iraq

WASHINGTON, Dec. 12 ‹ Saudi Arabia has told the Bush administration that it 
might provide financial backing to Iraqi Sunnis in any war against Iraq¹s 
Shiites if the United States pulls its troops out of Iraq, according to American
and Arab diplomats.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia conveyed that message to Vice President Dick 
Cheney two weeks ago during Mr. Cheney¹s whirlwind visit to Riyadh, the 
officials said. During the visit, King Abdullah also expressed strong opposition
to diplomatic talks between the United States and Iran, and pushed for 
Washington to encourage the resumption of peace talks between Israel and the 
Palestinians, senior Bush administration officials said.

The Saudi warning reflects fears among America¹s Sunni Arab allies about Iran¹s 
rising influence in Iraq, coupled with Tehran¹s nuclear ambitions. King Abdullah
II of Jordan has also expressed concern about rising Shiite influence, and about
the prospect that the Shiite-dominated government would use Iraqi troops against
the Sunni population.

A senior Bush administration official said Tuesday that part of the 
administration¹s review of Iraq policy involved the question of how to harness a
coalition of moderate Iraqi Sunnis with centrist Shiites to back the Iraqi 
government led by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.

The Saudis have argued strenuously against an American pullout from Iraq, citing
fears that Iraq¹s minority Sunni Arab population would be massacred. Those 
fears, United States officials said, have become more pronounced as a growing 
chorus in Washington has advocated a draw-down of American troops in Iraq, 
coupled with diplomatic outreach to Iran, which is largely Shiite.

³It¹s a hypothetical situation, and we¹d work hard to avoid such a structure,² 
one Arab diplomat in Washington said. But, he added, ³If things become so bad in
Iraq, like an ethnic cleansing, we will feel we are pulled into the war.²

The Bush administration is also working on a way to form a coalition of Sunni 
Arab nations and a moderate Shiite government in Iraq, along with the United 
States and Europe, to stand against ³Iran, Syria and the terrorists,² another 
senior administration official said Tuesday.

Until now Saudi officials have promised their counterparts in the United States 
that they would refrain from aiding Iraq¹s Sunni insurgency. But that pledge 
holds only as long as the United States remains in Iraq.

The Saudis have been wary of supporting Sunnis in Iraq because their insurgency 
there has been led by extremists of Al Qaeda, who are opposed to the kingdom¹s 
monarchy. But if Iraq¹s sectarian war worsened, the Saudis would line up with 
Sunni tribal leaders.

The Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Turki al-Faisal, who told his 
staff on Monday that he was resigning his post, recently fired Nawaf Obaid, a 
consultant who wrote an opinion piece in The Washington Post two weeks ago 
contending that ³one of the first consequences² of an American pullout of Iraq 
would ³be massive Saudi intervention to stop Iranian-backed Shiite militias from
butchering Iraqi Sunnis.²

Mr. Obaid also suggested that Saudi Arabia could cut world oil prices in half by
raising its production, a move that he said ³would be devastating to Iran, which
is facing economic difficulties even with today¹s high oil prices.² The Saudi 
government disavowed Mr. Obaid¹s column, and Prince Turki canceled his contract.

But Arab diplomats said Tuesday that Mr. Obaid¹s column reflected the view of 
the Saudi government, which has made clear its opposition to an American pullout
from Iraq.

In a speech in Philadelphia last week, Prince Turki reiterated the Saudi 
position against an American withdrawal from Iraq. ³Just picking up and leaving 
is going to create a huge vacuum,² he told the World Affairs Council. ³The U.S. 
must underline its support for the Maliki government because there is no other 
game in town.²

Prince Turki said Saudi Arabia did not want Iraq to fracture along ethnic or 
religious lines. On Monday a group of prominent Saudi clerics called on Sunni 
Muslims around the world to mobilize against Shiites in Iraq. The statement 
called the ³murder, torture and displacement of Sunnis² an ³outrage.²

The resignation of Prince Turki, a former Saudi intelligence chief and a son of 
the late King Faisal, was supposed to be formally announced Monday, officials 
said, but that had not happened by late Tuesday.

³They¹re keeping us very puzzled,² a Saudi official said. Prince Turki¹s 
resignation was first reported Monday in The Washington Post.

If Prince Turki does depart, he will leave after 15 months on the job, in 
contrast to the 22 years that his predecessor, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, spent 
as ambassador in Washington.

In Riyadh, there was a sense of disarray over Prince Turki¹s resignation that 
was difficult to hide. A former adviser to the royal family said that Prince 
Turki had submitted his resignation several months ago but that it was refused. 
Rumors had circulated ever since that Prince Turki intended to resign, as talk 
of a possible government shake-up grew.

Prince Saud al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia¹s foreign minister and Prince Turki¹s 
brother, has been in poor health for some time. He is described as eager to 
resign, with his wife¹s health failing, too, just as the United States has been 
prodding Saudi Arabia to take a more active role in Iraq and with Iran.

The former adviser said Prince Turki¹s resignation came amid a growing rivalry 
between the ambassador and Prince Bandar, who is now Saudi Arabia¹s national 
security adviser. Prince Bandar, well known in Washington for his access to the 
White House, has vied to become the next foreign minister.

³This is a very high-level problem; this is about Turki, the king and Bandar,² 
said the former adviser to the royal family. ³Let¹s say the men don¹t have a lot
of professional admiration for each other.²

Hassan M. Fattah contributed reporting from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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