Eye on Iraq: Enter the Saudis

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst   |   Nov. 27, 2006 at 2:17 PM
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WASHINGTON, Nov. 27 (UPI) -- The collapsing security situation in Iraq is producing a dramatic realignment of nations in the Middle East, with the United States is being pushed to protect Sunnis in Iraq against Shiites by an unlikely combination of its allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Elliot Abrams, the U.S. deputy national security adviser and one of the most influential policymakers in the Bush administration, is now energetically pushing boosted security cooperation with the Saudis, U.S. and Middle East intelligence sources have told UPI.

Abrams was a driving force in the policy of toppling Saddam Hussein and creating a new, democratic government in Iraq.

Abrams, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and David Welch, the assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, wants to encourage the Saudis to play a more active role in trying to stabilize Iraq, the sources said. Welch's growing influence is a triumph for traditional Arab and Middle East experts at State and it reflects the confusion as well amid the loss of prestige that neo-conservative activists in the administration are experiencing.

The fall of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his announced replacement by former CIA Director Robert Gates is also expected to boost intensified U.S.-Saudi cooperation. Gates served as Director of Central Intelligence under President George Herbert Walker Bush, the current president's father, in the early 1990s during what was a golden age of U.S.-Saudi strategic cooperation.

The new policy is part of the sweeping turnaround in U.S. policy on Iraq and the Middle East. Until this summer, Rice was still driving hard for a policy of spreading democracy throughout the Arab world. That policy has never been formally abandoned, but the growing mayhem in Iraq and finding ways to contain it and dampen it down has now becoming the overriding strategic priority for administration policymakers.

Ironically, it was the Bush administration's democracy-building policies in Iraq that created a chaotic power vacuum there, bogged down 135,000 U.S. troops there in an exhausting and escalating civil war and emboldened Iran. Iran's growing power and potential nuclear capabilities now alarms both Israel and Saudi Arabia.

As previously reported in these columns, Saudi Arabia is building a high-tech, state-of-the-art multi-billion dollar fence to try and protect its country from infiltration by Islamist extremists in Iraq.

But privately, Saudi leaders and their advisers now say that will not be enough. If the United States pulls out of Iraq, or if it fails to protect the 5.5 million Sunni minority community in Iraq from escalating Shiite retaliation attacks, the Saudi sources told UPI that Riyadh would be forced by its own public opinion to intervene with financial and possibly other aid for the endangered Sunni community in Iraq.

Such a course of action could bring the Saudis into conflict with the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But Maliki's government has close ties with the increasingly assertive Shiite militias in Iraq and is increasingly dependent upon them. Maliki has also energetically been strengthening his ties with both Iran and Syria, nations that the Saudis and the Israelis both fear.

Syria remains the one major conventional military threat that Israel faces. By itself, the Syrian army is regarded by almost all U.S. and Middle Eastern military analysts as no match for the Israeli army. But if Hezbollah in Lebanon could use its refilled inventories of Katyusha rockets and mortars to try and disrupt an Israeli Army military mobilization for a head-on clash with Syria, it to could pose a serious problem. Iran supports and equips Hezbollah via Syria, and the Iranian nuclear threat alarms the Israelis even more than it does the Saudis.

On the positive side, the alarm that Israel and Saudi Arabia share about the growing Iranian threat and the collapse of any pretension to effective stable government in Iraq should be a boon for U.S. policymakers. But ironically, Israel and the Saudis are alarmed precisely because previous U.S. policies in Iraq have failed so disastrously, leading to the current crisis.

The Saudis hope that their growing influence on the Bush administration may reduce the risk of the United States going to war with Iran over Tehran's nuclear program.

"There is great concern (in Riyadh) that the United States could stumble into a war with Iran," Nawaf Obaid, managing director of the Saudi National Security Assessment Project, told UPI.

The Saudis therefore, want the United States to succeed in deterring and containing Iran and stabilizing Iraq without seeing the crisis there escalate out of control into a wider conflagration that could engulf the entire region.

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