The Royal Treatment: Saudi Involvement in Iraq Overlooked

Editor: Erik Leaver

Reporting on Iraqi benchmarks in mid-September, Bush and his team of Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker sought to pin some of the blame on Iran. Eschewing diplomatic language during his testimony, Crocker boldly said, “Iran plays a harmful role in Iraq.” Gen. David Petraeus added that Iran is fighting a “proxy war” in Iraq by aiding Shiite extremists and providing weapons that are killing American troops.

Anyone doubting that Bush is not serious about taking on Tehran should note his words from last month: “We will confront this danger before it is too late.” On September 17 the Telegraph reported that the Pentagon has already drawn up plans for massive airstrikes against 2,000 targets across Iran.

The great irony is that while of these accusations towards Tehran are supported by thin evidence, plenty of evidence does exist that another of Iraq’s neighbors, U.S.-ally Saudi Arabia, is supporting resistance groups in Iraq, and intends to continue to do so.

A Neighborly Mess: Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia

“Saudi Arabia has both the means and the religious responsibility to intervene [in Iraq],” wrote Nawaf Obaid, neoconservative ally and a former security advisor to the Saudi government, in a shockingly frank editorial for a Washington Post last November. He warned the Bush administration, sinking ever deeper into the quagmire of Iraq: “America must not ignore the counsel of Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States. If it does, one of the first consequences will be massive Saudi intervention to stop Iranian-backed Shiite militias from butchering Iraqi Sunnis.”

Obaid’s warning, in response to talk of a possible U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, noted the current Saudi political stance “I am my brothers’ keeper” towards fellow Sunni Arabs in Iraq. Clearly the Saudis do not consider all Iraqis their brothers, particularly the Shia.

The editorial said, “As the economic powerhouse of the Middle East, the birthplace of Islam and the de facto leader of the world’s Sunni community, constituting 85 percent of all Muslims, Saudi options are to provide Sunni military leaders (primarily members of the former Iraqi officer corps, who make up the backbone of the insurgency) with the same types of assistance — funding, arms and logistical support — that Iran has been giving to Shiite armed groups for years or to help establish new Sunni brigades to combat the Iranian-backed militias.”

Obaid admitted that Saudi involvement in Iraq carried great risk and “…could spark a regional war but the consequences of inaction are far worse” and that his country “had pressed other members of the Gulf Co-operation Council…Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman — to give financial support to Sunnis in Iraq.”

Arming the Neighborhood

In August, the Bush administration announced new arms packages for Israel and seven Arab nations comprising military equipment worth $20 billion to Saudi Arabia, over $30 billion in military assistance to Israel, and $13 billion to Egypt.”

To some extent, the arms packages are an extension of the same policies that have been in place for years in the Middle East. For example since 1998, Saudi Arabia alone has received over $15 billion in U.S. weapons.

But these sales have had little impact in the region other than arming everyone to the teeth. In her article, The Saudi Arms Deal: Congressional Opposition Grows, Rachel Stohl points out that “The United States has had little success in the past using arms sales to buy leverage in the region. ”

From Washington’s viewpoint the sale has two objectives: bucking up the Saudi-dominated six-member Gulf Cooperation Council and countering Iran’s influence. But the sales will likely cause Iran to respond by boosting its arms caches.

A dangerous side effect of the sales is the addition of more arms into a region where each country has distinct objectives in the region and inside Iraq. The sales set the stage for Iraq to be the flashpoint for a potential proxy and/or regional war.

But most dangerously for Iraqis and U.S. troops, the sales reward a country that is providing an estimated 45% of all foreigners fighting U.S. troops and Iraqi government forces.

Destabilizing Iraq: The Saudi Role

A “clear” view of Iraq is now visible only through a blood-soaked kaleidoscope of contradictory and conflicting U.S. policies. While the Bush administration regularly lashes out at Syria and Iran for aiding militias and foreign fighters in Iraq, according to official U.S. military figures reported in the Los Angeles Times on July 15, about 45% of all foreign militants targeting U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians and security forces are from Saudi Arabia. Fighters from the kingdom are believed to have carried out the majority of suicide bombings in Iraq.

Who is to blame for the influx of fighters though? Gen. Mansour Turki, a spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry, however, blames forces inside of Iraq for the flow of Saudi human bombs into Iraq. If he is to be believed, “Saudis are actually being misused. Someone is helping them come to Iraq. Someone is helping them inside Iraq. Someone is recruiting them to be suicide bombers. We have no idea who these people are. We aren’t getting any formal information from the Iraqi government.” But Iraqis are quick to point the finger across the border. Lawmaker Sami Askari, an advisor to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Askari accuses Saudi officials of following a deliberate policy of sowing chaos in Baghdad: “The fact is that Saudi Arabia has strong intelligence resources, and it would be hard to think that they are not aware of what is going on.”

Askari claims that imams at Saudi mosques regularly call for jihad against Iraq’s Shi’ites and that the Saudi government had funded groups to cause chaos and bloodshed in Iraq’s predominantly Shi’ite south.

But in large part this continues to be conveniently overlooked by the Bush administration so that massive arms packages can be sold to Saudi Arabia, access to the vast oil reserves continues unabated, and the Saudi royal family’s long-standing connections to the Bush family remain unmentioned in mainstream circles.

There are the odd rare days, however, when the boat does get rocked.

Just days before the $20 billion arms package was handed to the Saudi monarchy, Bush administration officials voiced their anger at the “counter productive” role of Saudi Arabia in Iraq. They accused Saudi Arabia of regarding Maliki as an Iranian agent and actively working to undermine his government and for offering financial backing to various Sunni groups inside Iraq.

Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and presently the U.S. ambassador to the UN, wrote in the New York Times recently, “Several of Iraq’s neighbors, not only Syria and Iran but also some friends of the United States, are pursuing destabilizing policies there.”

But this is the exception rather than the rule. The cozy relationship between Washington and Riyadh continues, largely unscathed.

And Destabilizing They Are…

“Mosul is where the Saudis are the most active today because it is already primarily Sunni and there are a few Kurds,” says Sureya Sayadi, a 46-year-old Kurdish American woman who lives in the Bay Area of California. Sayadi, from Kirkuk, Iraq fled to the United States with her family when the U.S. left Kurds in the lurch after encouraging them to rebel against Saddam Hussein in the aftermath of the 1991 war against Iraq.

A teacher and a medical doctor, Sayadi fills the rest of her time facilitating the work of an international NGO that assists Kurdish orphans and victims of honor killings. She is busier than ever as the number of both has escalated dramatically in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. She believes Bush administration policies “have empowered Islamist political parties whose clerics promote honor killings” and have “destroyed Iraq’s judicial system and altered its laws to justify the killings.” She adds, “One of our Kurdish employees has heard from the community that the Saudis are taking over parts of Kurdistan by promising people education.”

In recent conversations with her NGO colleagues, Sayadi has found that within the last two years, the Saudi government has financed the construction of at least 50 mosques in Erbil and Suleimaniya alone. They are also very active on the Turkish/Iraq border and in Kirkuk and Halabja. She explains, “They go to areas where there is the most poverty and suffering, stepping in to offer services that people are not getting from the government — health care, education, and sometimes employment — and in the process implant[ing] their fundamentalist ideology.”

Sayadi believes the Saudi monarchy is directly involved in funding “at least four new Islamic groups in Kurdistan. They are exploiting the fact that Kurds are mostly Sunni.”

During the summer of 2005, members of al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Sunna cells were among several extremists arrested in Erbil, and most of them were Kurds. Prior to this, Saudi mosque-building in the area during the 1990’s combined with the return of Kurdish militants who had fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan is believed to have led to the emergence of groups like Ansar al-Sunna. The general perception was that these men aspired to radicalize the general population by replicating the Afghan model in Kurdistan. Reinforcing this trend around that time, Saudi Arabia established links with these Kurds to counter the power of Saddam Hussein. In 1992-93 Islamist Kurdish groups worked under the Saudi based International Islamic Relief Organization and other “charities,” which pumped $22 million a month into Kurdish areas. Today the Saudi names have been replaced with Kurdish names.

In the decade following the 1991 war, when Saudi “charities” constructed 1,832 new mosques, alarmed Kurdish officials instituted restrictions. Wahabi teachings followed in Saudi had been translated into Kurdish and imported into the region, accompanied by the Salafi strain, a puritanical, strict interpretation of the Koran adhered to by al-Qaeda.

In 2003, U.S. air-strikes had targeted bases of Ansar al-Islam on Iraq’s northeastern border with Iran. These same radical groups, thanks in large part to Saudi backing, are now alive and flourishing in Kurdish controlled northern Iraq.

“Islamists, from Saudi Arabia, are offering money to young Kurds, visiting their schools, marrying Kurdish girls and taking them back to the kingdom.” Sayadi tells me, “Kurds have always been quite secular, none of us practiced the hijab but now Kurdish women are being forced to do this. There is segregation of men and women. People in sheer desperation and hope for aid are turning more fundamentalist. The environment is ripe for fundamentalism, and Saudi influence is increasing rapidly. They are creating a hope-filled impression amongst the people that Islamic assertion is the way to resist the West.

Kurdish girls assisted by Sayadi’s NGO have revealed that Saudi Islamists are pressuring Kurdish women to adopt a fundamentalist ideology in exchange for free religious studies in Kurdish universities. From her experience with Kurdish refugees in southeastern Turkey she sees that, “In both Iraq and Turkey Islamists are operating in a similar fashion, leaving no stones unturned to convert people to fundamental Islam. They are buying poor Kurds desperate for survival and feeding them ideology.”

Sayadi’s 35-year-old unemployed nephew Mushtaq, with a Kurdish mother and a Shi’ite Arab father, used to drive a taxi between Beji and Baghdad. “A man with a Saudi dialect called his mother, my step-sister Gailas, and ordered her to raise $2,500 to free Mushtaq. They called from his cell phone and had him appeal to his mother to give them the money. She raised the money and brought it to a suburb in Baghdad where they had instructed her to go only to find her son’s burned taxi and his hacked body wrapped in his prayer rug. The men said they did it because he was Shia.”

Another disturbing incident in northern Iraq this April was the stoning to death of a 17-year-old Yezidi girl, Du’a Khalil Aswad, by men from the Saudi-funded mosques.

Amnesty International condemned the killing, calling it “a so-called honor crime” in which the girl “was killed by a group of eight or nine men and in the presence of a large crowd in the town of Bashika, near Mosul because she had engaged in a relationship with a Sunni Muslim boy and had been absent from her home for one night.”


The Middle East is floating in the violence and chaos bred by failed Bush administration policies. Generations are now being raised in occupations and/or war zones, which were caused and/or supported by Washington. Needless to say, anti-American sentiment in the region is quite likely higher than it has ever been in history.

The primary sword in the belly of the Middle East — that of the U.S. occupation of Iraq — must be immediately and unconditionally removed. The United States must simultaneously pay full compensation to every Iraqi who has lost a loved one or suffered damages as a result of the U.S.-led invasion and occupation.

Second to this, the massive weapons packages should be immediately canceled; there is no need to attempt to douse the raging fires in the Middle East with yet more sophisticated weaponry.

In addition, if Iran is to be sanctioned, is it not inherently hypocritical not to be sanctioning Saudi Arabia in the same way, since there is more than ample evidence indicating that fighters, funding, and most likely weapons, are pouring across its borders into Iraq?

The solution must, finally, include diplomacy and even-handed dealings amongst all of the countries in the Middle East, as opposed to the current model where countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia effectively have carte blanche to do what they may. Otherwise it is sure to fail.

Dahr Jamail has reported from inside Iraq and is a Middle East expert. He writes for Inter Press Service, The Asia Times, and is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.