Sunday, July 29, 2007

US anger grows over Saudi Arabia's stance on Iraq

Scotland on Sunday

DURING a high-level meeting in Riyadh in January, Saudi officials confronted a top American envoy with documents that seemed to suggest Iraq's prime minister could not be trusted.

One purported to be an early alert from the prime minister, Nouri Kamal al-Maliki, to radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, warning him to lie low during an American troops increase aimed in part at al-Sadr's militia. Another document purported to offer proof that Maliki was an agent of Iran.

The American envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, immediately protested to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, contending that the documents were forged. But the Saudis remained sceptical, adding to the deep rift between America's most powerful Sunni Arab ally and its predominantly Shi'ite neighbour, Iraq.

Now, Bush administration officials are voicing increasing anger at what they say has been Saudi Arabia's counter-productive role in the Iraq war. They say that, beyond regarding Maliki as an Iranian agent, the Saudis have offered financial support to Sunni groups inside Iraq. Of an estimated 60 to 80 foreign fighters who enter Iraq each month, American military and intelligence officials say nearly half are coming from Saudi Arabia, and that the Saudis have not done enough to stem the flow.

One senior administration official claims to have seen evidence that Saudi Arabia is providing financial support to opponents of Maliki.

Officials in Washington have long resisted blaming Saudi Arabia for the chaos and sectarian strife in Iraq, choosing instead to pin blame on Iran and Syria. Even now, military officials rarely talk publicly about the role of Saudi fighters among the insurgents in Iraq.

But the Bush administration's frustration has increased in recent months because it appears Saudi Arabia has stepped up efforts to undermine the Maliki government.

The Saudi government has hardly masked its intention to prop up Sunni groups in Iraq. For the past two years it has stressed the need to counterbalance the influence Iran has there. King Abdullah is said to have warned Vice-President Dick Cheney last autumn that Saudi Arabia might provide financial backing to Iraqi Sunnis in any war against Iraq's Shi'ites if the United States pulled its troops out of Iraq.

Months ago, Saudi Arabia made a pitch to enlist other Persian Gulf countries to take a direct role in supporting Sunni tribal groups in Iraq, according to former US ambassador Edward W Gnehm, who has served in Kuwait and Jordan. He said that, during a recent trip to the region, he was told Saudi Arabia had pressed other members of the Gulf Co-operation Council - which includes Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman - to give financial support to Sunnis in Iraq.

The closest the administration has come to public criticism was an article about Iraq in the New York Times by Khalilzad, now the US ambassador to the United Nations. "Several of Iraq's neighbours - not only Syria and Iran but also some friends of the United States - are pursuing destabilising policies," he wrote.

Administration officials said Khalilzad was referring specifically to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates......

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