Two countries are most often mentioned as being direct threats to Iraq’s sovereignty, Syria and Iran. Hundreds of former Baathists fled to Syria after the U.S. invasion in 2003 where they took up residence, and began funding and orchestrating the insurgency. Iran on the other hand has had extensive ties with Shiite militias such as the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council’s Badr Brigade, Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, and the break away Special Groups. The U.S. has repeatedly blamed both for fomenting violence in Iraq. The close ties between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. however, has prevented the Americans from saying much about that country, which has been one of the main financiers of the insurgency, and accounts for almost half of the foreign fighters that have traveled to Iraq.
In February 2009 Newsweek magazine interviewed Abu Ahmed, a former Salafist and insurgent leader. Ahmed joined an insurgent group in May 2003, and would later become a leader who worked with Al Qaeda in Iraq. In 2007 he was talked into switching sides to help the Americans to hunt down his former Islamist brethren. He mentioned that his group received direct funding from Saudi Arabia, but during the sectarian war of 2006-2007 his benefactors stopped sending money because they thought Iraq was spinning out of control, which reminded them of what happened in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal.
Much of this cash comes from donations to religious charities. One tenant of Islam is that followers should give to the poor. In Saudi Arabia’s case, some of this money was directed towards the Sunni insurgents in Iraq instead. In December 2006, the Associated Press reported that some Saudis knew where the money was going, while others just gave to clerics. A main way of transferring the funds was to hide it in buses taking Iraqi pilgrims who went to their pilgrimage in Mecca back to Iraq. Iraqi trucks carrying goods were also used. The cash in turn was distributed to Iraqi politicians, clerics, and insurgents. A senior Iraqi official in 2006 said that there was one case where an Iraqi cleric received $25 million from Saudi Arabia and bought weapons with it.
The other major form of aid that Saudis provided was fighters. Up to 40% of all foreigners that came to fight in Iraq are estimated to come from Saudi Arabia. In December 2007 the U.S. released a study of captured insurgent documents that had information on 606 foreign fighters that had come to Iraq from August 2006 to August 2007. The largest number came from Saudi Arabia, accounting for 41% of the total. Likewise, a July 2007 news story said that 45% of all the foreigners held by the U.S. were Saudis. Many came to be suicide bombers. Saudis also played a leadership role in Al Qaeda in Iraq. In mid-April 2009 there was a report that a senior Al Qaeda commander was arrested in Basra who was a Saudi.
There has been very little mention of the role of the Saudis in the U.S. In April 2008 President Bush sent General David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker to Saudi Arabia to try to get them to support Iraq. The two U.S. emissaries were also supposed to discuss the Saudis’ role with the insurgency. Back in August 2007 the U.S. had a similar mission when Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates went to the kingdom to discuss the same topics. Earlier in that year the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalizad had accused the Saudis of destabilizing Iraq with their backing of the insurgency. Both times the U.S. administration was rebuffed. Saudi officials admitted that their young people were going to Iraq, and said they were doing what they could to stop them, but denied any role in fund raising for the insurgents. In 2006 the Iraq Study Group also mentioned the Saudi role, saying that the government was either passive about it or didn’t care.
The Saudis have four reasons for their policy. First, the Saudi kingdom opposed the U.S. invasion, and warned the Bush administration against it. Second, the Saudi elite rejected having a Shiite led government in Iraq. There are some ultra-religious Sunnis who do not believe that Shiites are real Muslims. Third, the Saudis felt that the combination of the American-led war and the ascendancy of Iraq’s Shiites would open the door to Iran, the Saudis main rival in the region. Many view Iraq as the main battleground between the two countries. Last, the kingdom is afraid that terrorists will flow into their country from Iraq. As a result the Saudis have been the most standoffish of the Arab countries towards Iraq. Since 2005 the U.S. has been pushing the Saudis unsuccessfully to support Baghdad. They have failed to follow through with their promise to forgive 80% of Iraq’s $15 billion debt, or provide $1 billion in reconstruction aid. They have also refused to open an embassy in Baghdad despite repeated pledges to do so.
Fighters and money continue to flow into Iraq through Syria, but in much smaller amounts as the insurgency has waned. Whether the Saudis are still playing a role or if they backed off as they did with Abu Ahmed’s group is unknown. The Saudis felt they could pursue this policy of supporting the Sunnis in Iraq because of their position as a leader in the Arab and Muslim world, along with their belief that the U.S. needed them to help with OPEC, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and Iran. This allowed them to reject pressure from Washington. This policy has barely changed since 2003. Even if they are not supporting militants as much, they continue to refuse to have full relations with Baghdad because of their fears of Shiites, Tehran, and terrorism. They are likely to be one of the last countries to accept the new status quo in Iraq, which will slow Baghdad’s acceptance in the region.
Associated Press, “Report: Iraqi Officials Track Financing for Sunni Insurgents to Saudi Citizens,” 12/8/09
Aswat al-Iraq, “Saudi AQI member captured in Basra,” 4/18/09
Dagher, Sam, “Is the Mahdi Army’s ‘cease-fire’ over?” Christian Science Monitor, 3/17/08
Dunne, Charles, “Iraq Going Forward: Threats to its Sovereignty, Prospects for its Future Role in the Middle East,” Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations, College of William and Mary, 4/13/09
Johnson, Scott, “Portrait of a Shadow,” Newsweek, 2/23/09
Oppel, Richard, “Foreign Fighters in Iraq Are tied to Allies of U.S.,” New York Times, 11/22/07
Parker, Ned, “The Conflict In Iraq: Saudi Role In Insurgency,” Los Angeles Times, 7/15/07
Regan, Tom, “Report: Private Saudi citizens funding Iraq insurgents,” Christian Science Monitor, 12/8/06
Roberts, Kristin, “Saudis biggest group of al Qaeda Iraq fighters: study,” Reuters, 12/19/07
Schmitt, Eric, “Bush Dispatches Envoys to Arab Capitals as Part of Iraq Plan,” New York Times, 4/11/08
Youssef, Nancy and Strobel, Warren, “U.S., Saudi Arabia have drifted apart,” McClatchy Newspapers, 8/2/07
Zavis, Alexandra, “Foreign fighters in Iraq seek recognition, U.S. says,” Los Angeles Times, 3/17/08
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