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Politics & Policies: Who owns the Mideast?

By CLAUDE SALHANI, UPI International Editor

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia, Dec. 9 (UPI) -- At the close of World War I, France and Britain divided the spoils of the defeated Ottoman Empire between themselves in what became known as the Sykes-Picot Accords, named for the two diplomats who negotiated most of the Middle East's boundaries by drawing straight lines in the sand.

Contented with their work, Mr. Sykes and Monsieur Picot folded up their maps and returned to their respective capitals believing their governments now "owned" the Middle East.

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Were they ever mistaken!

Both Britain and France quickly came to realize the Middle East couldn't be owned by outside forces. The Middle East might be temporarily controlled by a superior military force now and again, as was often the case. But in the end, much to the surprise of the colonial occupying powers, the local forces, who not too long ago fought each other, would close ranks and unite in opposing the foreign invader. Such is the case in Iraq today, and to a lesser degree, with Syria.

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Let's start with Syria: Ideologically there could not be two more divergent schools of political thought as Saudi Arabia's Wahhabis and Syria's ruling secular Baath Party. So when the United States began applying pressure on Bashar Assad's regime demanding it cooperate fully with the U.N. investigation into the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, one could assume the Saudis would be happy to see Syria squirm.

But this is far from being the case. In fact, Saudi Arabia's new king, Abdullah, made it known "Saudi Arabia will never let Syria be destroyed because of Hariri," an adviser to the Saudi monarch told United Press International.

That is not to say the Saudis do not support the investigation into the assassination of the former Lebanese leader or that they are turning their backs on the Hariri family.

Hariri, who earned his billions working in Saudi Arabia, was extremely close to the Saudi royal family and enjoyed the support of Crown Prince Abdullah before he became king upon the death of his brother Fahd.

"This is a worst-case scenario for the Saudi," said the adviser who asked not to be named. "One the one hand, they are torn between their loyalty to Hariri, while on the other hand the king will not let a major Arab country such as Syria go down the drain just to please America."

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And in Iraq, the situation is not much different, though far messier. The invasion of Iraq by U.S. and other international forces was, and continues to be, extremely humiliating to many Arabs. And though the majority of Arabs do not support Osama bin Laden or Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born terrorist operating in Iraq, many do not condemn attacks against the U.S. military, which they say represents a legitimate target for the insurgents.

"The Iraq folder is the only one that seems unredeemable," the same adviser told UPI.

Furthermore, Iraq has Saudi Arabia frightened, or more precisely, the Iranian/Shiite involvement in Iraq is what is frightening the Saudis. They are not alone to have noticed how encrusted Iranian intelligence agents have become in almost every aspect of life in Iraq, particularly in the southern part of the country. All of the countries bordering Iraq (with the exception of Iran) are made up of Sunni Muslims who look down upon the Shiites as inferior.

The last thing the Saudis would like to see emerging from Iraq is an alliance between Iraqi Shiites, who represent roughly 60 percent, and neighboring Iran.

And in the middle of all this sits the United States, thinking it "owns" the turf.

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"The most influential party in Iraq today is Iran, not the united States," said Nawaf Obaid, a Saudi security analyst. The United States may have troops on the ground and may be able to physically intervene by using force, but Iran is ultimately more powerful in Iraq. Despite its 130,000 troops and entire contingents of special forces and intelligence agents, the United States still does not "own" Iraq.

Jordan, another staunch U.S. ally in the region, is also in the Saudis' state of mind when it comes to the question of Sunni/Shiite rivalries. When the Shiites began making progress in Iraq both Jordan and Saudi Arabia decided "the Shiites must not be allowed to win," said an adviser to the Saudi palace.

If in the final analysis this means Saudi Arabia and Jordan, both of them U.S. allies, might need to discreetly funnel support to the Sunni resistance in order to keep the Shiites in check, then so be it.

Saudi officials will admit -- privately --they do no think that Iraq will remain unified.

"We do not believe that an Iraq in its present form is salvable," confided a Saudi official in Jeddah.

"If you were to ask me if there is a chance that Iraq will be divided, I would reply, 'YES,'" said an adviser to the king.

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At the end of the day the United States may have signed a short-term lease on Iraq, but it, much like the British and the French before them, will never be able to say it truly "owns" the Middle East. History, it seems, is repeating itself, only this time with the U.S. replacing the European colonial powers.

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(Comments may be sent to Claude@upi.com.)

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