Washington Times
December 2, 2006

Saudis' Worst Nightmare

By Claude Salhani

A precipitous withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq will result in an immediate and massive Saudi Arabian military intervention to stop Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias from "butchering Iraqi Sunnis."

Nawaf Obaid, a Saudi security expert who is managing director of the Saudi National Security Assessment Project in Riyadh and an adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says that over the past year much has changed. What was then unthinkable is now feared. A sudden departure of U.S. forces will place the future of Iraq's Sunnis in serious jeopardy from well-armed Shi'ite militias backed by Tehran. Numerous voices, says Mr. Obaid, have called for Saudi Arabia to protect the Sunni community in Iraq and to counter Iran's growing influence.

Mr. Obaid told United Press International that the Saudi leadership feels it would have no choice but to intervene militarily in Iraq in the event of a premature American pullout. But, adds Mr. Obaid, "I don't think they will withdraw any time soon, not any time soon." But in politics saying one thing and following through is not always a guarantee.

And when it comes to pulling U.S. forces out of Iraq there are two opposing schools of thought. The first is that the United States will not withdraw from Iraq until the security void can be filled (by Iraqis) to prevent further deterioration in what is already being called a civil war. If the Bush administration still refuses to admit the violence tearing that country apart is in fact a civil war, a number of major media outlets in the United States have applied that label to it.

President Bush has reiterated numerous times he would not pull out U.S. troops and leave the ground open to terrorists and pro-Ba'athist insurgents. But again, things change.

The second school of thought -- albeit a rather Machiavellian one -- sees a unique "opportunity" to entangle the Muslim world in a fratricidal war that would keep Islamic forces occupied for years, if not decades, to come. Should in fact the U.S. choose to remove its troops from Iraq and in the process leave that country's Sunni community in harm's way, there is no doubt Saudi Arabia will intervene, as it said it would, by sending its military in great force to protect their co-religionists. What could ensue is a protracted Shi'ite-Sunni war.

This could turn out to be the worst case or worst nightmare for Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region. But for some policymakers it could provide the answer to what they perceive as a rising threat that three years of continued all-out war by the world's best-armed, best-trained, best-equipped and most motivated army could not resolve.

Under this scenario, Saudi troops, along with billions of Saudi petro-dollars, would be tied up for years fighting Iranian-backed insurgents in Iraq. Chances are that the fighting might very well spill over into neighboring countries such as Saudi Arabia itself, Jordan, Iran and possibly beyond. In fact chances of this happening would be very high.

The thinking supporting that theory is that this would tie down fundamentalist forces on both sides for years to come. Saudi Arabia would be funneling large sums to sustain Iraq's Sunnis and their troops in that country. That would be money diverted from other Saudi projects, such as financing Islamic schools and mosques in Europe and North America.

Intra-Muslim fighting would also weaken the Shi'ites in Iraq as well as in neighboring Iran. As a result, a weakened Iran would be less inclined -- and certainly less financially inclined -- to pursue its nuclear program or to foment revolts beyond its borders. Or even be too preoccupied by what is going on its own front yard to continue its active support for Lebanon's Hezbollah Party.

Saudi King Abdullah is worried enough by this concept that he asked for an urgent meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney, prompting the vice president to fly an 18,000-mile round-trip for a two-hour meeting with the Saudi sovereign.

For the moment, Mr. Obaid says President Bush told King Abdullah that U.S. troops would stand fast in Iraq. In return, the Saudi king gave his word that Saudi Arabia would not meddle in Iraq, despite repeated requests from Sunni tribesmen that they do so. But as Mr. Obaid notes, these requests will be heeded if American troops are withdrawn and the Sunnis find themselves under fire and threat of ethnic cleansing.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.