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Saturday, July 12, 2014

This could be big on Saudi Arabia and Iran: Saudis Urge Tribes to Reject Iraq Militants - Riyadh's Interests Align With Those of Iran and U.S., as It Asks Allied Sunni Tribal Leaders to Turn Against Extremists

From The Wall Street Journal:

Saudi Arabia is privately encouraging its allied tribes in Iraq to turn against a Sunni extremist insurgency, a pivot that could help calm sectarian tensions that underpin the uprising, Western and Middle Eastern officials say.

After encouraging Sunni tribes in Iraq to help undermine the country's Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Saudi Arabia is now asking tribal leaders to support a new priority: fighting the insurgency led by the group that calls itself Islamic State, which the kingdom sees as an existential threat, the officials say.
These people say they hope the shift will weaken the Islamic State's bed of support in Sunni-majority western Iraq, help cripple the insurgency and smooth the way for broader Sunni participation in a new government in Baghdad that is now in negotiation.

They also hope that the confluence of interests between Sunni-led Saudi Arabia and Shiite-led Iran in defeating the Islamic State—which stunned the region when it seized huge swaths of Iraqi territory last month—mark a first step toward easing the destructive rivalry between the two powerful countries.

"There are mutual interests between Saudi and Iran here," said a senior Western diplomat in Iraq. "As we get a new [Iraqi] government and that government gets on its feet, I think there is an opportunity to get some real regional integration."

Saudi Arabia's foreign ministry didn't respond to requests to comment.

Such an alliance is likely to be incremental and possibly a temporary marriage of convenience to fight a common foe. And there isn't any immediate sign the tribes are taking concrete actions in response to the Saudi pivot.

But with Iraq's military badly weakened in the face of the Islamic State and its self-stylized Caliph Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, the need for cross-sectarian cooperation is likely to persist, the officials say.

"If the Saudis see that the government in Iraq is serious about engaging Sunnis, they would be willing to work toward the Iranian position and help fight the insurgency," said Hassan Hassan, an expert on Islamic insurgencies and a research associate at the Abu Dhabi-based Delma Institute. "This could lead to some kind of understanding between the Iranians and the Saudis that sectarianism is not the way to go."

Saudi Arabia, a regional diplomatic leader that has long considered itself a singular voice for Sunni Islam, has financed and given diplomatic cover to Sunni tribes who opposed Mr. Maliki, who the Saudis see as being too close to Iran, officials said.

"There was no question that Bandar and private Saudi people were pouring money into" anti-Maliki tribal groups, said one U.S. official, referring to the Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who ran the kingdom's international intelligence efforts until recently. "It was like pouring gasoline on something that was already out there but that was sort of dormant."

As the Islamic State, which until recently called itself the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham, became more powerful thanks in part to tribal support, U.S. officials say they believe the Saudis backed off their support for the tribes.

In May, the kingdom arrested 62 people they said belonged to a large terrorist cell working for the Islamic State. The Saudis' state of alert heightened when insurgents crept closer to their borders last week, prompting Riyadh to deploy additional troops to the frontier, Saudi intelligence officials said.

That, along with recent demonstrations by the Islamic State in Jordan, has raised Saudi Arabian fears that Islamic State victories in neighboring countries will embolden Islamist insurgencies within its own borders.

The Saudis believe the population of Iraq will throw the Islamic State out of the country if they believe that Mr. Maliki's days are numbered and that other changes will ensure his successor won't be able to disenfranchise them, said a person close to the Saudi government.

The Saudi Embassy in London this week said in a statement that the kingdom "wishes to emphasize, once again, that it does not and has not supported, financially, morally or through any other means, the terrorist organization known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria." Signals of the beginnings of a regionwide detente have also emerged from elsewhere in Saudi Arabia's sphere of influence. Egypt's Saudi-backed President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi recently offered enthusiastic support for Mr. Maliki, who is now in the midst of negotiations for his third four-year term.

Mr. Sisi also spoke out to condemn statements by leaders of Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish regions who said they might seek independence. On Wednesday, Mr. Maliki went a step further, accusing Iraq's Kurdish leaders of letting Islamic State militants use their regional capital of Erbil as an operations center, an allegation Kurdish officials rejected.

In a phone call between the Egyptian and Iraqi leaders on Tuesday, Mr. Sisi praised Mr. Maliki's fight against terrorism and said that he would soon send Egypt's foreign minister on a visit to Baghdad.

The warmth between Egypt and Mr. Maliki's Iraq belies the Egyptian state's traditional suspicions over perceptions of Iranian influence.

Instead, Mr. Sisi was making common cause with Mr. Maliki's fight against Islamist extremism an effort that Mr. Sisi has also pursued in Egypt with a sweeping crackdown on supporters of the country's deposed Islamist president.

In addition to seeking Mr. Maliki's replacement, the Saudis are actively pressing for changes in the structure of the Iraqi government to limit the executive powers of the prime minister and incorporate new checks and balances in the system "so no one can Maliki the country again," the person close to the Saudi government said.

The Saudis recently gave Iraqis $500 million through the U.N., money that is directed not just to Sunnis but to other groups as well, signaling the kingdom's willingness to enter a "new chapter" in relations provided that governmental changes are made, the person said.

"The kingdom has no personal problem with Maliki," said Khamis Al Khanjar, a Sunni Iraqi politician and businessman who enjoys close relations with the Saudi government. Mr. Khanjar denied that Saudi Arabia had ever sought to undermine Mr. Maliki, but blamed the premier for the recent uptick in sectarianism. "Maliki's policies led to the situation where he is refused by his partners internally and by the regional powers also," he said.


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