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Saudi Arabia Casts Wary Eye at Iraq, Iran


The rising death toll in Iraq from sectarian violence and insurgent attacks, the growing influence of neighboring Iran and Tehran's nuclear ambitions are issues that dominate global headlines and discussions in the corridors of power. They are also cause for growing apprehension in neighboring Saudi Arabia where many fear a spill-over effect that could destabilize the kingdom and the region.

American military officials say documents, captured in a raid last month south of Baghdad show that Abu Musab al Zarqawi's al-Qaida in Iraq network is weak, disorganized and only able to carry out hit and run attacks on relatively unprotected civilian targets. That would seem to indicate that the threat from al-Qaida-linked militants and the foreign fighters associated with them is diminishing.

Officials and analysts in neighboring Saudi Arabia are not so sure.

Saudi political analyst Khalil al-Khalil calls Iraq a focal point of death and terror.

"No doubt the Iraqi situation is critically dangerous and that is really what bin Laden and his lieutenants want to see," he said. "Iraq is more dangerous in my opinion than Afghanistan because the area is very, very explosive and also it is much easier for the extremists and for the terrorists to recruit not hundreds, but thousands and thousands for fighting in Iraq."

Khalil, a former university professor, is a member of the kingdom's Shura Council, a selected consultative body that advises the king on a variety of issues.

In Iraq, the coalition spokesman, U.S. Major General Rick Lynch, said recently that Zarqawi's recruits are responsible for 90 percent of all suicide attacks in Iraq. The good news, he said, is that suicide bombings have dropped off since one year ago and he attributed that to military operations that have shut off supply routes bringing foreign fighters into Iraq.

Some foreign militants are still coming in, mainly from Syria, but not always.

Saudi Arabia's Interior Ministry spokesman, Major General Mansour al-Turki, told VOA in a recent interview in his office in Riyadh that Saudi Arabia has tightened border security because young Saudis still try to cross over into Iraq to fight.

"We're trying to prevent anybody trying to leave the country going to Iraq. In general, the involvement of Saudi nationals in Iraq is not large. We don't believe this number exceeds hundreds, let's say. We're preventing Saudis from going to Iraq in any way. We're controlling our borders. We're controlling the border in both directions," he said.

Saudi officials say one obvious reason for Saudis to want to fight in Iraq is the continued presence there of the American military. Another, they say, is sympathy with Iraq's Muslim Sunni minority, which is now dominated by the Shia majority.

Khalil al-Khalil is among those who see the rising power of Iraq's Shiites as part of the growing influence in Iraq and the region of Shia-ruled Iran.

"Iran has to be stopped from playing games in this issue," added al-Khalil.

Many of Iraq's top Shiite leaders spent years in exile in Iran during the time of Saddam Hussein and are seen as still close to Tehran.

The Saudis are not the only ones casting a wary eye toward rising Shiite power. King Abdullah of Jordan has accused Iran of trying to form a Shiite-dominated region. And, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak drew stiff criticism for saying that most Shiites are loyal to Iran rather than to the countries they live in.

Saudi Arabia has its own Shiite minority, mostly in the east of the country.

Some see that as a potential problem. Khalil does not.

"Yes, we have some Shiite population, but they are Saudis first," he explained. "I know many of their intellectual leaders. They are very good Saudis and they are very responsible."

There is also concern over Iran's defiant insistence that, despite Western demands and threats, it will continue to develop its nuclear enrichment program, which could be used to make nuclear weapons.

Professor Ahmed Ibn Saifuddin of Riyadh's Imam Ibn Saud University says Iran's nuclear ambitions are unsettling.

"Yes, we do have concerns as Gulf countries, as Arab countries, as opposed to the ambitions of Iran to have nuclear power. We don't know what these nuclear programs are intended for," he said. "They always stated that it's for peaceful purposes, but God knows. We don't know. But, we still need to negotiate. Threats and challenges are not going to solve the problem. In fact, it's going to increase the threat of an all-out war that is going to be bad for everyone."

Iran has always been a major player in the region, but in the past was kept in check by its powerful neighbor, Iraq. The U.S. invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein are widely seen as having disrupted that balance. And, there is another fear - that the young Muslim zealots now fighting in Iraq will one day come home and set their sights on their own governments and societies - much like the Mujahideen who helped drive the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan two decades ago and then spawned al-Qaida.