Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Saudis Threaten To Aid Sunni Insurgency If U.S. Leaves Iraq

Helene Cooper's New York Times article about the Saudi government's recent pot-stirring on Iraq is catching attention in the blogosphere. The Saudis are worried about Sunnis in Iraq being massacred if the U.S. withdraws troops from Iraq or reduces troop levels:

Saudi Arabia has told the Bush administration that it might provide financial backing to Iraqi Sunnis in any war against Iraq's 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. Cheney's 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 America's Sunni Arab allies about Iran's rising influence in Iraq, coupled with Tehran's 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 administration's 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 Iraq’s 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.

Juan Cole observes that the fact this is all playing out in public is highly unusual for the secretive Saudis:

... Saudi King Abdullah told US VP Dick Cheney two weeks ago that if the US withdrew precipitately from Iraq, the kingdom would have little choice but to support the Sunni Arab guerrillas. The Saudi government had pledged to the US not to do so as long as US troops were in Iraq. But it is alleged that Saudi oil millionaires privately already send money to the guerrillas. Saudis, as Wahhabi Muslims, belong to a sect that is to the right of Sunnism. But the Wahhabi tradition dislikes Shiites and in any Sunni-Shiite struggle, the Wahhabis will come in on the Sunni side.

This item is no surprise, of course, and I have brought up this likelihood a number of times myself. What is remarkable is that it is being stated by the Saudi leadership and published in the press. The Saudis are usually circumspect. If they are leaking this sort of thing, their hair must be on fire with anxiety.

The Saudi warning comes on the tail of Monday's announcement by Prince Turki al-Faisal that he is leaving his position as ambassador to the United States, after only 15 months on the job.

Steve Clemons thinks the resignation may have to do with power struggles within the Saudi royal family:

Turki's predecessor in his job, Prince Bandar, who was Saudi Ambassador to the US for 22 years, is reportedly jealous of the rave reviews Turki was getting in Washington -- and has been jockeying with Turki in Washington power circles by continuing to manage his own White House relations and contacts throughout Bush world without consulting and coordinating with Ambassador Turki.

Whereas Ambassador Turki has been forthright with the Bush White House about Saudi views of what America needed to be doing in the Middle East -- particularly with regard to checking Iran's growing power, dealing with Israel's flamboyant response to Hamas and Hezbollah incursions earlier this year, moving Israel-Palestine negotiations from pathetic illusion to reality, and getting the calculus in Iraq on a more constructive course -- Bandar is perceived to be somewhat of a "good old boy" by the Bush crowd and somewhat sycophantic when around Bush and Cheney.

Saudi sources report to TWN that Turki is highly irritated by Bandar's "immaturity, unprofessionalism, and self-indulgent political games." These are strong words in nearly any context -- but these kinds of visible cracks in the Saudi royal family are usually fairly well hidden and massaged.

Some believe that King Abdullah's failure to stop an escalating feud between Bandar and Turki was a serious miscalculation by the King and also illustrates the challenges the King faces in managing and rationalizing leadership succession to the throne among rival family factions.

Bandar, who is eager to succeed Foreign Minister Saud and Prince Turki's brother as the next Saudi Foreign Minister, may have overplayed his hand in lobbying for the job.

The King is now in a position that if he loses both Saud as Foreign Minister because of health and then loses Prince Turki, he's lost two of the key brothers in a clus[t]er of children of the former King Faisal who have been key allies of his during his reign and are clearly part of the modern, reformist, and professional/less corrupt parts of the Saudi ruling family.

According to Prof. Cole, Prince Turki has explicitly rejected violence as a way to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict:

... Prince Turki has been an effective diplomat and has done a lot of outreach work, addressing ordinary American audiences (a style very unlike that of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, his long-serving predecessor). Prince Turki is the only Saudi official I know of publicly to espouse Gandhian principles of non-violence for the Palestinian cause. I met him more than once and was impressed by his humanity and acumen. I'm sorry to see him leave Washington. ...


The Ripper said...

Great post, thanks. Don't know if you've seen this David Letterman clip with Our Fearless Leader in it, but its pretty funny--

Kathy said...

Thanks for your comment, ripper. I had not seen that clip, and you're right, it's hilarious.