U.S. officials voice frustrations with Saudis, citing role in Iraq
WASHINGTON: This article was reported by Helene Cooper, Mark Mazzetti and Jim Rutenberg, and written by Ms. Cooper.
During a high-level meeting in Riyadh in January, Saudi officials confronted a top American envoy with documents that seemed to suggest that Iraq's prime minister could not be trusted.
One purported to be an early alert from the prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, to the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr warning him to lie low during the coming American troop increase, which was aimed in part at Mr. Sadr's militia. Another document purported to offer proof that Mr. Maliki was an agent of Iran.
The American envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, immediately protested to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, contending that the documents were forged. But, said administration officials who provided an account of the exchange, the Saudis remained skeptical, adding to the deep rift between America's most powerful Sunni Arab ally, Saudi Arabia, and its Shiite neighbor, Iraq.
Now, Bush administration officials are voicing increasing anger at what they say has been Saudi Arabia's counterproductive role in the Iraq war. They say that beyond regarding Mr. Maliki as an Iranian agent, the Saudis have offered financial support to Sunni groups in Iraq. Of an estimated 60 to 80 foreign fighters who enter Iraq each month, American military and intelligence officials say nearly half are coming from Saudi Arabia and that the Saudis have not done enough to stem the flow.
One senior administration official says he has seen evidence that Saudi Arabia is providing financial support to opponents of Mr. Maliki. He declined to say whether that support was going to Sunni insurgents because, he said, "That would get into disagreements over who is an insurgent and who is not."
Senior Bush administration officials said the American concerns would be raised next week when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates make a rare joint visit to Jidda, Saudi Arabia.
Officials in Washington have long resisted blaming Saudi Arabia for the chaos and sectarian strife in Iraq, choosing instead to pin blame on Iran and Syria. Even now, military officials rarely talk publicly about the role of Saudi fighters among the insurgents in Iraq.
The accounts of American concerns came from interviews with several senior administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they believed that openly criticizing Saudi Arabia would further alienate the Saudi royal family at a time when the United States is still trying to enlist Saudi support for Mr. Maliki and the Iraqi government, and for other American foreign policy goals in the Middle East, including an Arab-Israeli peace plan.
In agreeing to interviews in advance of the joint trip to Saudi Arabia, the officials were nevertheless clearly intent on sending a pointed signal to a top American ally. They expressed deep frustration that more private American appeals to the Saudis had failed to produce a change in course.
The American officials said they had no doubt that the documents shown to Mr. Khalilzad were forgeries, though the Saudis said they had obtained them from sources in Iraq. "Maliki wouldn't be stupid enough to put that on a piece of paper," one senior Bush administration official said. He said Mr. Maliki later assured American officials that the documents were forgeries.
The Bush administration's frustration with the Saudi government has increased in recent months because it appears that Saudi Arabia has stepped up efforts to undermine the Maliki government and to pursue a different course in Iraq from what the administration has charted. Saudi Arabia has also stymied a number of other American foreign policy initiatives, including a hoped-for Saudi embrace of Israel.
Of course, the Saudi government has hardly masked its intention to prop up Sunni groups in Iraq and has for the past two years explicitly told senior Bush administration officials of the need to counterbalance the influence Iran has there. Last fall, King Abdullah warned Vice President Dick Cheney that Saudi Arabia might provide financial backing to Iraqi Sunnis in any war against Iraq's Shiites if the United States pulled its troops out of Iraq, American and Arab diplomats said.
Several officials interviewed for this article said they believed that Saudi Arabia's direct support to Sunni tribesman increased this year as the Saudis lost faith in the Maliki government and felt they must bolster Sunni groups in the eventuality of a widespread civil war.
Saudi Arabia months ago made a pitch to enlist other Persian Gulf countries to take a direct role in supporting Sunni tribal groups in Iraq, said one former American ambassador with close ties to officials in the Middle East. The former ambassador, Edward W. Gnehm, who has served in Kuwait and Jordan, said that during a recent trip to the region he was told that Saudi Arabia had pressed other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council — which includes Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman — to give financial support to Sunnis in Iraq. The Saudis made this effort last December, Mr. Gnehm said.
The closest the administration has come to public criticism was an Op-Ed page article about Iraq in The New York Times last week by Mr. Khalilzad, now the United States ambassador to the United Nations. "Several of Iraq's neighbors — not only Syria and Iran but also some friends of the United States — are pursuing destabilizing policies," Mr. Khalilzad wrote. Administration officials said Mr. Khalilzad was referring specifically to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Ms. Rice and Mr. Gates, as well as Mr. Cheney and Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, have in recent months pressed their Arab counterparts to do more to encourage Iraq's Sunni leaders to support Mr. Maliki, senior administration officials said.
"This message certainly has been made very clear in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi," a senior administration official said. "But there is a deep reserve directed both at the person of the Maliki government but more broadly at the concept" that Iraq's Shiites are "surrogates of Iran." Saudi Arabia has grown increasingly concerned about the rising influence of Iran in the region.
A spokesman at the Saudi Embassy in Washington did not return telephone calls on Thursday. But one adviser to the royal family said that Saudi officials were aware of the American accusations. "As you know by now, we in Saudi Arabia have been active in having a united Arab front to, first, avoid further inter-Arab conflict, and at the same time building consensus to move toward a peace settlement between the Arabs and Israel," he said. "How others judge our motives is their problem."
Even as American frustration at Saudi Arabia grows, American military officials are still cautious about publicly detailing the extent of the flow of foreign fighters going to Iraq from Saudi Arabia. Earlier this month, for instance, Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner, the top American military spokesman in Iraq, detailed the odyssey of a foreign fighter recently captured in Ramadi.
In his public account, General Bergner told reporters that the man arrived in Syria on a chartered bus, was smuggled into Iraq by a Syrian facilitator, and was given instructions to carry out a suicide truck bomb on a bridge in Ramadi. He did not identify the man's nationality, but American officials in Iraq say he was a Saudi.
The American officials in Iraq also say that the majority of suicide bombers in Iraq are from Saudi Arabia and that about 40 percent of all foreign fighters are Saudi. Officials said that while most of the foreign fighters came to Iraq to become suicide bombers, others arrived as bomb makers, snipers, logisticians and financiers.
American military and intelligence officials have been critical of Saudi efforts to stanch the flow of fighters into Iraq, although they stress that the Saudi government does not endorse the idea of fighters from Saudi Arabia going to Iraq.
On the contrary, they said, Saudi Arabia is concerned that these young men could acquire insurgency training in Iraq and then return home to carry out attacks in Saudi Arabia — similar to the Saudis who turned against their homeland after fighting in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The Bush administration's relationship with Saudi Arabia has deteriorated steadily since the United States invasion of Iraq, culminating in April when, bitingly, King Abdullah, during a speech before Arab heads of state in Riyadh, condemned the American invasion of Iraq as "an illegal foreign occupation."
A month before that, King Abdullah effectively torpedoed a high-profile meeting between Israelis and Palestinians, planned by Ms. Rice, by brokering a power-sharing agreement between the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and the militant Islamist group Hamas that did not require Hamas to recognize Israel. While that agreement eventually fell apart, the Bush administration, on both occasions, was caught off guard and infuriated.
But Saudi officials have not been too happy with President Bush, either, and the plummeting of America's image in the Muslim world has led King Abdullah to strive to set a more independent course.
The administration "thinks the Saudis are no longer behaving the role of the good vassal," said Steve Clemons, senior fellow and director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation. The Saudis, in turn, "see weakness, they see a void, and they're going to fill the void and call their own shots."