Saudis funding insurgents in Iraq
By: ERIC ROSENBERG on: 04.03.2007 [08:08 ] (2699 reads)
Saudis funding insurgents in Iraq
U.S. fears proxy war with Iranian-backed Shiites could widen
BY ERIC ROSENBERG
WASHINGTON — During his inaugural appearance before Congress last week, the new U.S. intelligence czar made a rare public reference to one of Washington's secret dreads.
Mike McConnell, the new director of national intelligence, said there are funds coming from Saudi Arabia, an ostensible U.S. ally, to help Sunni insurgents in Iraq, while Iran is supporting the Shiite militias there.
McConnell's testimony undergirds U.S. concerns that the Iraq civil war could turn into a direct Saudi-Iranian confrontation, with American military forces caught between warring combatants for Islam's two dominant strains.
Separately, Brian Jenkins, a military expert with Rand Corp., a national security and foreign policy research organization, said: "What we already are seeing in Iraq is an emerging proxy war between Saudi-backed Sunnis and Iranian-backed Shia."
If that proxy war cascades into a direct Iranian-Saudi military clash, it could imperil much of the world's oil supply. Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq are Nos. 1, 3 and 4, respectively, in terms of proven oil reserves.
Nawaf Obaid, then a security adviser to the Saudi government, alluded to the tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia in November when he warned in an op-ed column that a U.S. withdrawal of forces from Iraq would result in "massive Saudi intervention to stop Iranian-backed Shiite militias from butchering Iraqi Sunnis." The Saudis fired Obaid after the column was published in the Washington Post.
Tensions between the two nations are the main topic at a summit this weekend that Saudi and Iranian leaders were holding in Saudi Arabia.
The U.S. has a close oil-diplomatic relationship with Saudi Arabia and a long history of shielding the kingdom, as illustrated by McConnell's reluctance to identify the Saudis as a source for support for the Sunni insurgents. His statement was elicited through persistent questioning by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a former assistant attorney general in Michigan.
Levin asked McConnell during a committee hearing about the source of support for Sunni insurgents in Iraq.
McConnell replied: "There is some flow to the Sunni side in terms of funding and weapons and recruits."
Levin continued: "And what countries are those weapons coming from?"
McConnell: "Weapons could come from a variety of countries. Syria probably is one of the major places."
Levin: "What countries other than Syria could either weapons or funding for the Sunni insurgents come from?"
McConnell: The U.S. lacks "clear evidence that it's definitely coming from any one particular government. But there are indications that it could be a variety of countries around Iraq and also from private donors …"
Levin, interjecting: "What other countries besides Syria? You said that there's evidence that weapons or money for weapons is coming from a number of countries. The one you singled was Syria, but what other countries?"
McConnell: "What I was attempting to say is donors from countries around the area. One would be inside Saudi Arabia, as an example."
McConnell later elaborated that he had "no awareness at this point" whether the Saudi government was directing the support of Sunni insurgents through private donors. Nor did McConnell explain whether Saudi support was flowing to Iraqi insurgents of Sunni allegiance, or to al-Qaida in Iraq — a Sunni organization — or to some combination. Al-Qaida carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center and a swath of the Pentagon and killed nearly 3,000 people.
Thomas Fingar, deputy director of national intelligence for analysis, told Levin's committee that "Saudi Arabia as a government is not providing funding" to the Sunni insurgents and that the Saudi government was trying to halt the flow of private funds.
"But they still do flow, to some extent," he said.
The comments from the country's top intelligence officials echo observations by the Iraq Study Group on Page 25 of its 84-page report released in December.
"Funding for the Sunni insurgency comes from private individuals within Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States," said the report by the study group headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., "even as those governments help facilitate U.S. military operations in Iraq by providing basing and overflight rights and by cooperating on intelligence issues."
The Saudis have denied they are supporting the Sunni insurgency.
But Steven Simon, a senior member of the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, said Saudi funding of the Sunni insurgency "is one of those things that we dare not speak its name."
"There is a renewed desire to protect the U.S.-Saudi bilateral relationship," Simon said in an interview. "So you don't want to draw public attention to things they are doing that many observers might regard as counter to American interests."