Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Official: Saudis to back Sunnis if U.S. leaves Iraq

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has warned Vice President Dick Cheney that Saudi Arabia would back the Sunnis if the United States pulls out of Iraq, according to a senior American official.

The official said the king "read the riot act" to the vice president when the two met last month in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

The New York Times first reported the conversation Wednesday, saying Saudi support would include financial backing for minority Sunnis in the event of a civil war between them and Iraq's Shiite majority.

Violence between the two sects has exploded in waves of revenge killings since February's bombing of a revered Shiite mosque in Samarra, north of Baghdad.

An official with Cheney's office said the one-on-one meeting lasted two hours. The November 25 visit marked the fourth time Cheney had been to Saudi Arabia as vice president.

The Saudi king told Cheney that his country would be forced to step in and support "like-minded Sunni Arabs" if the situation in Iraq fell apart and the Sunnis' safety was in jeopardy, the senior U.S. official said.

The monarch said he would "intervene aggressively on one side absent an American presence," the source said.

The source said the king did not mean to imply that Saudi Arabia would support al Qaeda in Iraq, but rather tribal groups. However, some of those groups overlap with insurgents who are fighting Americans, the source conceded.

The bipartisan Iraq Study Group that reported to President Bush and Congress last week said money from Saudi citizens is funding Sunni insurgents in Iraq, although the Saudis may not know exactly where their money is going.

Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution said Saudi Arabia has a reason to take sides.

"They're terrified that Iraq is going to fall into civil war. They're terrified that civil war will spill over into Saudi Arabia. But they're also terrified that the Iranians, backing the various Shiite militias in Iraq, will come out the big winner in a civil war," Pollack told CNN.

Another recommendation of the Iraq Study Group called for engaging other countries in the region, including Iran and Syria, in the search for solutions in Iraq.

In his meeting with Cheney, the Saudi king voiced strong opposition to talks between the United States and Iran, which has a majority Shiite population.
According to the senior American official, he told Cheney that Sunni Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, believed that talking to Iran was dangerous.

A senior U.S. official said the conversation between the two men reflects the "anxiety about the situation" and the Saudi concern about being left "high and dry" if the United States leaves Iraq.

But the official said leaving Iraq is a "doomsday scenario" that will not happen because the United States isn't going to withdraw.

"We are not walking away from it," the official said.


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