The head of the largest Shiite party SCIRI, Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, did not have much to say when he met President George W. Bush at the White House on Dec. 4 (See also DEBKA-Net-Weekly 281 of Dec. 8). He was especially taciturn on the subject of political and military cooperation with American plans for Iraq.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington sources report that the Iraqi Shiite visitor was so unforthcoming on all the issues raised by the US president that some White House aides and members of the national security council saw in the visit a bad mistake. They are now ruing America’s handling of Iraq’s Shiite leaders as disastrously misconceived and misconstrued.
This is because Shiite leaders have been behaving for months as though America is giving them all the slack they want to carry on targeting Sunni Muslims in the ongoing sectarian bloodbath. This misreading of US motivations was evinced before Bush’s White House talks with Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki on Nov. 30. It has not been corrected since because it was not fully appreciated by US intelligence, the diplomatic community headed by US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, or the military chiefs under Generals John Abizaid and John Casey.
The communication gap only began to surface when the president met the SCIRI leader in the White House. Its full extent became apparent a short time later, when al Hakim went to see Democratic Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. Even then, the visiting Iraqi Shiite leader was not exactly loquacious but he made himself clear on the key issue exercising the administration most urgently: reining in the militias and death squads responsible for the relentless carnage in Iraq.
Iraq‘s Shiites determined to win the sectarian war
Al-Hakim made three points very clear:
– The Shiites did not start the civil war in Iraq and they have no intention of stopping it.
– If the US goal is to halt the sectarian warfare raging in Iraq, the Shiites will not participate in this effort.
– The Shiites are more determined now than ever before to win the war and fight for total victory.
The Bush administration’s dilemma was only sharpened by the talks Vice President Dick Cheney held with Saudi king Abdullah in Riyadh on Nov. 25, in which the king spoke on behalf of Iraq’s Sunni Muslim minority. Cheney was given to understand that Saudi Arabia cannot afford to let the Shiites come out the victors of the sectarian conflict, whether out of regional considerations or, most of all, because of the fallout on the kingdom’s internal equilibrium.
The Saudis, who share a 500-mile border with Iraq, are seriously worried about their own Shiite minority being encouraged to demand a measure of autonomy and a share in control of the oil fields situated in their provinces.
Fearing a Sunni population massacre in Iraq at the hands of a Shiite-dominated army under Iranian influence, the Saudis will line up not only behind Iraqi Sunnis, but all the other Sunni groups on the ground, possibly including even al Qaeda’s terrorists.
The king did not dot every i and cross every t on this position and so Cheney returned to Washington the next day with the impression that the Bush administration still had some leeway for its efforts to seek a way out of the dilemma:
The Saudi princes therefore decided on further steps to show Washington that that Riyadh meant business. The rival branches of the royal house – King Abdullah, on the one hand, and the Sudairis, on the other – employed different tactics for the shared goal of underlining where the kingdom stood in relation to the crisis.
One: Three days after Cheney flew home, The Washington Post ran of Nov. 29 ran an opinion piece by the former Saudi communications adviser Nawaf Obeid (reported in DEBKA-Net-Weekly 280 on Dec. 1) outlining a bold plan for “massive Saudi intervention to stop Iranian-backed Shiite militias from butchering Iraqi Sunnis”- as one of the first consequences of an American pullout from Iraq.
He also suggested that Saudi Arabia could cut world oil prices in half by raising its production, a move that he said “would be devastating to Iran, which is facing economic difficulties even with today’s high oil prices.”
This was a Sudairi initiative. (More about Obaid’s services to the Sudairis in the next article in this issue).
The Saudi government, while not averse to the tactic, found it expedient to disavow Obaid and his column. The Saudi ambassador in Washington, Prince Turki al-Faisal canceled Obeid’s consultancy contract with the embassy.
Save Iraq’s Sunni Muslims, Go Nuclear
Two: A week later, Riyadh launched an important go-it-alone step – this one led by the king in person and supported by Prince Turki’s brother, foreign minister Saud al-Faisal.
Saturday, Dec. 9, Abdullah opened a summit of oil-rich Gulf leaders in Riyadh with a warning covering the Middle East – from the Palestinian territories to the Gulf:
“Our Arab region is surrounded by dangers,” said the monarch. “It is like a keg of gunpowder waiting for a spark to explode.”
Iraq was not mentioned, but all the participants knew exactly what he was talking about: the shared menace hanging over all the heads of their Sunni regimes.
Three: The next day, the GCC summit ended with an announcement that really ruffled feathers in Washington.
“The (leaders) commissioned a study by GCC members to set up a common program in the area of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, according to international standards and systems. The peaceful use of nuclear energy is the right of every country.”
After the conference, Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud dismissed any suggestion that the Gulf group’s nuclear plans would add to the regional threat.
“We will develop it openly, not in secret,” he said. “We want no bombs. All we want is a whole Middle East that is free of weapons of mass destruction.”
Behind those impeccable sentiments, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Middle East sources report that, on the quiet, King Abdullah used all his clout to persuade the Gulf Arab oil producers to adopt his proposed plan of action for a drive to procure nuclear weapons to generate a balance of terror with Iran’s program.
DEBK-Net-Weekly’s military and intelligence sources recall that the party which bankrolled the first Muslim nuclear bomb in Pakistan was Saudi Arabia. So the oil-rich kingdom will have no qualms about funding its own Muslim nuclear program, especially when the GCC resolution obliges all its members to share the costs of a joint Gulf Sunni Muslim nuclear weapon venture.
In the past week, senior sources at the royal court in Riyadh have asserted more than once that Saudi Arabia would not stand by for the Gulf and Middle East to have a Shiite nuclear bomb – but no Sunni weapon.
This decision crosses a historic threshold by launching the region on the first step of a nuclear arms race. Furthermore, it takes the Arab governments of the Persian Gulf into their first tentative move towards direct interaction with the problems raised by the sectarian war in Iraq and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
The events in the three weeks since the end of November seem to point the way to Iraq’s runaway Shiite-Sunni Muslim strife spreading into a broader conflict that threatens to shake up the entire Persian Gulf and the Middle East. The Bush administration appears to be in no shape to actively contain this hazard.