Saudis: We’ll arm Iraq insurgents

From The Telegraph, Dec. 14, emphasis added:

Saudi Arabia would respond to an American withdrawal from Iraq by funding and arming Sunni insurgents to prevent them being massacred by Shia militias, the kingdom has told the White House.

The blunt warning, which diplomatic sources said was delivered by King Abdullah to Vice President Dick Cheney in Riyadh just over a fortnight ago, raises the spectre of an Iraqi civil war triggering a conflict between Sunni and Shia states across the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia fears that the United States might take the side of the Shia majority in Iraq or abandon the country altogether, leaving Sunnis at the mercy of Shias intent on vengeance for decades of Sunni domination and oppression.

Chas Freeman, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said that King Abdullah was also concerned that the US invasion of Iraq had “consolidated an Iranian hegemony in the northern tier of the Arab world”.

The Saudi warning greatly complicates President George W Bush’s plan for a fresh Iraq strategy. The White House this week announced that Mr Bush would not be addressing Americans about a changed Iraq policy until the New Year after previously indicating he would give a speech before Christmas.

Any Saudi intervention in Iraq would be fraught with difficulty because foreign al-Qa’eda fighters loyal to the Saudi-born Osama bin Laden are dedicated to bringing down the House of Saud.

The abrupt resignation this week of Prince Turki al-Faisal, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, after just 15 months in the post is believed to be connected to his opposition to the suggestion that the kingdom might intervene in Iraq.

The kingdom’s hardening position is a reaction to what some Bush administration officials refer to as the “80 per cent solution” in Iraq — a US state department proposal to abandon moves to woo Iraq’s Sunnis, who make up 20 per cent of Iraq’s population of 26 million.

Mr Bush was at the Pentagon yesterday to discuss Iraq with senior generals, many of whom favour a “surge” in troop numbers in Iraq, particularly in Baghdad.

The president responded coolly to proposals by the independent Iraq Study Group last week to begin a gradual “draw-down” of US forces. Philip Zelikow, a senior aide to Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, is said to be the author of the “80 per cent” proposal, which argues that US attempts at reconciliation between Sunnis, who dominated Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and Shia are too ambitious.

But Miss Rice is understood to oppose the plan and it has met stiff opposition from Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador to Baghdad, and military commanders in Iraq.

Miss Rice instead favours the creating of a “Sunni crescent” in the Middle East based on Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf states while building links between moderate Sunni tribal and provincial leaders in Iraq and Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-led government.

This would isolate Shia-dominated Iran and Sunni-dominated Syria.

Saudi Arabia is particularly concerned about the growth of Iran and its client Hizbollah, which is also supported by Syria, in Lebanon.

See our last posts on Iraq and Saudi Arabia.