By Barbara Koeppel
Almost daily, the Bush administration ratchets up the war-like rhetoric about Iran’s alleged role in destabilizing Iraq. Eerily, like the pre-Iraq War drumbeat, the U.S. press repeats the accusations with little skepticism and Congress marches in lockstep, as a new Middle East villain is marked for punishment.
On Aug. 15, front-page stories in the New York Times, the Washington Post and other leading newspapers described how the Bush administration planned to designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps a “global terrorist” organization for supporting anti-U.S. and anti-Israeli forces in the Middle East.
The administration asserts that with the “terrorist” tag, the elite 125,000-man Guard is no longer a legitimate part of Iran’s military, but a rogue unit ripe for attacking. The move pushes the United States dangerously close to a direct confrontation with Iran, even as the death toll and spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to spiral out of control.
Yet, the U.S. finger-pointing at Iran’s support for Iraqi Shiite militias, including alleged deliveries of armor-piercing explosive devices, obscures the fact that U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia, is implicated by far more persuasive evidence in helping Iraqi Sunni militias with money, weapons and suicide bombers to kill both U.S. troops and Iraqi targets, including civilians.
On the Saudi role, however, the Bush administration and the U.S. press corps are remarkably silent.
By shifting the blame for Iraq’s chaos onto Iran, administration officials also divert attention from their own guilt in wrecking a once-functioning modern country through an unprovoked invasion and an inept occupation. As far as most of the U.S. press corps is concerned, Washington’s goal in Iraq is stability and democracy.
When Saudi Arabia is mentioned, the oil-rich nation usually is depicted as another force for moderation and reform, like in late July when administration officials leaked U.S. plans to sell $20 billion in sophisticated weaponry to Saudi Arabia, purportedly to counter Iranian aggression.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice explained this was to “give the forces of moderation and reform a chance.”
But unless Rice has been asleep for decades, she has to know the Saudis are neither moderate nor reform-minded. Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s combination of religious extremism and political repression made the country a perfect breeding ground for the likes of Osama bin Laden, most of the 9/11 hijackers – and many of the suicide bombers crossing the border into Iraq.
Ali Alyami, director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, said the basis for the U.S.-Saudi alliance begins and ends with oil.
The deal is simple: the Saudi royal family guarantees a steady supply of oil to the United States and the United States protects the security of the Saudi royal family.
But the U.S. invasion of Iraq complicated the relationship. By installing pro-Iranian Shiites in charge of Iraq, the invasion caused the Saudis to rally to their fellow Sunnis in Iraq, who had slid from a position as the ruling elite under Saddam Hussein to a marginalized and embattled minority.
Further, the Saudis were alarmed by the prospect of a powerful Shiite crescent running from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus to Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. The combined oil fields of Iraq and Iran also represented a challenge to the Saudis’ traditional dominance of OPEC and the world’s oil supply.
To counter these strategic and economic threats, Alyami said, the Saudi leaders had to play their hand discreetly. “The royal family are clever like desert foxes, and will do whatever they have to do, to meet their ends,” he told me in an interview.
The Bush administration also had its own geopolitical interest in ignoring the Saudi role in Iraq’s turmoil, since that would disrupt the desired narrative – that Iran, Syria and al-Qaeda were primarily responsible for the violence in Iraq.
The Bush administration has restricted its criticism of Saudi Arabia to the complaint that the Saudis could do more to help with Iraq’s reconciliation.
As for Saudi pledges to stop terrorism, Alayami said they are worthless: “They try, but only on their own turf. They have no interest in stopping it outside their borders.”
Alyami said the royal family’s only true concern is survival, which means maintaining its political control at home, its influence in the Persian Gulf, and its religious-ideological role as leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims. Saudi Arabia is home to Islam’s two holiest shrines in Mecca and Medina.
For these reasons, Alyami said the royal family needs a government in Iraq with a dominant Sunni presence. But since Sunnis make up only about 20 percent of Iraq’s population, the United States has had to press Iraq’s Shiite leaders to give the Sunnis more representation than their numbers justify.
But that still is not enough for the Saudis, nor for Iraq‘s Sunni leadership, Alyami said.
Thus, despite their vehement denials, the Saudis send men and money to sustain the Sunni insurgency, which is the primary means to pressure Baghdad’s new power structure to grant the Sunnis greater shares of oil revenue and political influence.
According to media accounts, the Saudi cash delivery system to Iraq is primitive but effective. In December 2006, the Associated Press quoted truck drivers as saying they carried boxes of cash from Saudi Arabia to Iraq, headed for insurgents or the Sunni leadership. The ATM-on-wheels also relied on bus drivers and returning pilgrims from Mecca.
The AP article cited high-ranking Iraqi officials who said “Saudi money comes from private donations, called zaqat, collected for Islamic causes and charities.“ Some is given to clerics “who channel it to anti-coalition forces.“
One Iraqi official said “$25 million in Saudi money went to a top Sunni cleric in Iraq and was used to buy sophisticated weapons, including shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles,” the AP reported.
Saudi Role Confirmed
The Iraq Study Group, headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton, concurred, stating that Saudis “are funding Sunni Arab insurgents.”
Besides cash, Saudi manpower has been vital to the insurgents. Since the 2003 invasion, various press accounts have reported that the majority of non-Iraqi Arabs fighting alongside Iraqi insurgents or acting as suicide bombers are Saudis.
To rally recruits to the insurgents’ jihad (or holy war), Saudi clerics, all of whom are on the government payroll, have issued fatwas (religious directives) in Saudi mosques and through the media from 2003 to the present.
The clerics exhort the faithful to go to Iraq to fight infidels, a word that refers to Western military forces, Shiites and anyone who doesn‘t believe in the Salafi (or Wahabi) extreme branch of Islam. The most famous fatwa was signed by 26 senior Saudi clerics in November 2004.
Most Saudi clerics support jihad openly. “If suicide bombers target Saudi Arabia, the clerics call them terrorists,” said Ali Al-Ahmad, director of the Washington-based Institute for Gulf Affairs. “If they target infidels in Iraq, the clerics say it’s the right thing to do.“
Rather than punish the 26 clerics, the government rewarded them, Ahmad said, promoting several and giving one cleric four weekly television shows on four different Saudi stations.
Alyami contends the government could silence the clerics if it wanted to. “Saudi Arabia is a country where the government controls every facet of life,” including religion, education, the justice system, military, police, economy and media, he said.
For those who criticize the government, retribution is swift, from losing jobs to bans against public speaking to arrest, torture and execution.
Just this year, for example, Amno Al-Faisal, a member of the royal family and columnist in the Saudi newspaper, Al-Watan, criticized the justice system. He was immediately banned from writing anything further.
Poet Ali Al-Domaini and two professors, Dr. Matrouk Al-Faleh and Dr. Abdullah Al-Al-Hamed, were imprisoned in 2004 for calling for elections and political reform. They were jailed for 18 months and when released, banned from travel, government work, political activities, writing, giving lectures and talking to the media.
So, critics say, it’s hard to believe that the Saudi government couldn’t muzzle radical clerics if it had the desire.
While the Bush administration has had trouble making a convincing case about Iran’s covert role in the Iraqi insurgency, Saudi dissidents point to direct evidence implicating powerful Saudis.
For instance, Ahmad cited a secret tape recording of Sheik Saleh-al-Luhaidan, chief of the Saudi judiciary, recruiting young people to join the Iraqi insurgents. On it, Luhaidan approves the transfer of men and money from Saudi Arabia to jihad leaders in Iraq, stating “he who wages jihad needs no permission … if his intention is to raise up the word of God. Then he is free to go.”
In 2005, Ahmad obtained a copy of the tape and gave it to NBC, which reported that it had confirmed the tape’s authenticity. Luhaidan remains chief of the Saudi Supreme Court.
As for stopping Islamic extremists at the border, Ahmad said, “Usually, Saudi border guards cooperate and look the other way.”
Though some jihadists are caught trying to enter Iraq and their arrests are publicized, the vast majority makes it across.
“The royal family doesn’t care how long the war in Iraq lasts or how many people are killed; it only care about its interests,“ Alyami said.
The number of Saudis who have been killed in Iraq varies depending on the source. Ahmad, who collects the names from terrorist groups’ communiqués and Internet sites, estimates the number could be as high as 2,000 to 3,000, though other estimates are lower.
An Israeli group, Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA), reported in 2005 that during six months in 2004-2005, Jihadi-Salafi Web sites listed 154 Arabs as killed in Iraq. Of these, 94 (or 61 percent) were Saudis.
Of the 154 Arab deaths, 33 were suicide bombers, with 23 (or 70 percent) coming from Saudi Arabia, GLORIA reported.
Despite the evidence linking Saudi Arabia to the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, the Bush administration consistently downplays or ignores these reports. Conversely, it plays up every scrap of evidence implicating Iran, a longtime target that President George W. Bush famously counted in the “axis of evil” with Hussein’s Iraq and North Korea.
If the full story of Saudi interference in Iraq were ever told, however, the Bush administration would have a much harder time selling the American people on the $20 billion arms sale.
The Saudi connection to the Iraqi violence also would trash the administration’s favored narrative that blames outside forces – al-Qaeda, Iran and Syria – for most of the trouble.
To prevent any straying from the official story line, the U.S. government – and much of the U.S. news media – have put on blinders that focus American attention on the enemies Bush wants punished, not his friends.
Barbara Koeppel is a Washington-based investigative reporter.