Stephen Collinson / Agence France-Presse – 2006-12-14 23:16:52
(December 14, 2006) — The specter of a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran over the bones of an shattered Iraq is being conjured up by veiled warnings the kingdom may bankroll Sunni fighters if US troops go home.
Apparent Saudi anxiety over US intentions — the idea of which is rejected publicly by US and Saudi officials — coincides with President George W. Bush’s quest for a new strategy to end carnage in Iraq.
Coupled with the sudden resignation and Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Turki al-Faisal, talk of frays in the crucial Saudi-US alliance have sent intrigue rippling through Washington.
“We may be on the verge of a Saudi intervention in Iraq on behalf of their (Sunni) kin, we may be on the verge of a proxy war,” said Chas Freeman, former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
Fears of such a scenario intensified after the New York Times reported Tuesday Riyadh may bankroll Iraq’s Sunnis against Iran-backed Shiites, should US troops retreat and leave a raging civil war.
While Saudi pressure may be just a shot across US bows, it has filtered out in public at a time when Iraq’s future dominates the political agenda here.
One option kicked around by policy analysts would have the United States adopt classic military doctrine and back the side likely to win a civil war.
But tacit US support for Shiites aimed at crushing the Sunni insurgency, may make strategic sense, but contains several flaws: among them, the likelihood it would alienate US Sunni allies in the Gulf, including the Saudis.
“If there is a policy of that sort, the Saudis will be on the other side,” said Freeman, adding Saudi riches could help Sunni forces to heavy weaponry and mobility they currently lack.
Outside states have little option but to look to the future of an Iraq not propped up by the United States, said James Dobbins, a former senior State Department official.
“They can’t afford not to become engaged, they are the nations that are going to have the consequences of a failed state on their doorstep.”
Saudi King Abdullah has reportedly faced pressure from the public and hardline clerics to bolster Sunnis in Iraq, and a US lean towards Shiites would exacerbate the problem.
“If you are a Saudi you will be really concerned about that,” said Michael Hudson, professor of Arab Studies at Georgetown University.
Sectarian slaughter in post-occupation Iraq would leave Saudi Arabia no option but to intervene, experts said.
“Saudi Arabia and for that matter Jordan are not prepared to acquiese in what they would see as an Iranian domination of Iraq or in the decimation of their kin,” said Freeman.
Possible consequences for the United States of such an estrangement could bite deep into military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Freeman said.
“If Saudi Arabia is on this side and
we are on that side, how much do you want to bet Saudis are going to allow overflights of their territory?” he said.
The latest flurry of Saudi speculation was set off by a Washington Post article last month, by Nawaf Obaid, then a private advisor to Prince Turki.
His warning of “massive Saudi intervention to stop Iranian-backed Shiite militias from butchering Iraqi Sunnis” should US forces begin a withdrawal from Iraq jolted the foreign policy community here.
The article was later disowned by the Saudi government, but by then concern over Saudi sentiments was rife, especially as the piece appeared days after Vice President Dick Cheney’s unexpected trip to Riyadh, which several reports say amounted to a dressing down by the King.
Senior US officials deny they have received any warning from Riyadh. The Saudi embassy in Washington said it had no comment.
Bush pointedly went out of his way to state Saudi Arabia was committed to a unity government in Iraq during a Pentagon meeting on Wednesday.
“We’re working hard with them to figure out a strategy to help the Maliki government succeed,” he said, referring to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
But Obaid’s words are still reverberating here.
“To turn a blind eye to the massacre of Iraqi Sunnis would be to abandon the principles upon which the kingdom was founded.
“To be sure, Saudi engagement in Iraq carries great risks — it could spark a regional war. So be it: The consequences of inaction are far worse.”
Copyright © 2006 Agence France Presse
Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.