The Slaughter of Sunnis in Iraq Worries Saudis
Part One of Colloquium on Iraq
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
WHEN I first heard that the Iraq Study Group had recommended pulling US troops out of Iraq by 2008 and advocated the Bush administration talk to sworn enemies Iran and Syria, I naively thought that things were going well and that the American establishment had finally seen the error of its ways in the continued occupation of Iraq.
Don’t get me wrong. I supported the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein, the brutal dictator who had been responsible for the death and torture of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Iranians. I often remember being invited to the house of the Iraqi ambassador to Brazil in the late 1970s when I was attending the American School of Brasilia, and being disturbed at seeing a larger-than-life blown up photo of Saddam in the living room where we danced, celebrating the birthday of the ambassador’s daughter who was my classmate. That weird memory stuck in my mind and reminded me afterwards of the megalomaniac that ruled Iraq with such an iron fist.
Although everyone here in Saudi Arabia believed that the US had invaded Iraq just so that it could control its oil and establish permanent military bases in the region, I was also optimistic with President George W. Bush’s words that he wanted to establish a true democracy in Iraq that would bring freedom and stability to the whole region. No one has ever denied that the entire Arab world is dominated by dictators that want to cling onto power for as long as possible. Bush caused a mini-Spring in late 2003 and 2004 in the Middle East where the Saudi government was pushed into agreeing to hold municipal elections in 2005 for the first time in over 40 years. This brief glimmer of a possible democratic future, in which all citizens would have some say in how they were governed, helped convince reformists in the Kingdom to circulate a petition addressed to King Fahd calling for a constitutional democracy, elections for the Shoura Council, and greater rights for all Saudi citizens, both male and female. The forces of tradition did not like this and four leading reformists were jailed for more than a year and found guilty in a trial of fomenting dissent. They were only released when the new king, Abdullah, pardoned them in 2005.
With the stratospheric rise in oil prices this year, and the fact that Islamist candidates won most of the municipal council seats across the country, the hopes of a more democratic, free and liberal Saudi Arabia have foundered.
Saudi Arabia’s rulers have had a long and troubled relationship with Saudi Shias, who form around 10 percent of the country’s population. For a long time they were denied any important jobs in the government and were constantly denigrated by Sunni religious preachers as being bad people who should be avoided at all costs. King Abdullah has taken a much different viewpoint and has advocated talking to them and treating them as fully equal Saudi citizens. He started this even when he was the Crown Prince in the series of National Dialogues that he initiated after Saudi Arabia decided to explore why so many of the Sept. 11, 2001 hijackers were Saudi.
This fraught relationship with our own Shia has been mirrored in our schizophrenic relationship with Shia superpower Iran. We have always been wary of Iran’s ambitions to be a regional power and to be the leader of the Islamic world, even though Shias are a minority in the religion. This wariness of all Iranian actions peaked after the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran which overthrew the Shah of Iran and threatened to export the incendiary ideas of Ayatollah Khomeini to Saudis, both Shia and Sunni, just across the narrow Persian Gulf. After Iranian pilgrims rioted during the Haj pilgrimage in Makkah in the early 1980s, the Kingdom broke off diplomatic relations for several years.
It is in this context that we should understand why Saudi Arabia is so worried about what is happening to their Sunni brethren in Iraq. The truth is that after decades of oppression by the Sunni minority, of which Saddam was the worst example, the Shia liberated by the invading US forces are now exacting revenge by kidnapping, torturing, blowing-up and killing thousands of Sunni Iraqis. Although Sunnis are nominally sharing some power with the Shia, it is a fact that the police forces have become thoroughly infiltrated and taken over by various Shia militias. That is why just two weeks ago around 100 people at the Sunni-run Ministry of Higher Education were forcibly whisked away by armed men in uniforms in broad daylight, never to be heard from again. Prime Minister Nur Al-Maliki insists that most of those snatched from the ministry were since released, but the minister of higher education himself disputes this, saying it’s not true.
The truth of the matter is that what the doomsayers predicted before the invasion in 2003 would happen if Iraq were invaded, is now happening right before our eyes. Iraq has indeed fractured along sectarian lines, and the sad part is that the US seems incapable, or at least politically unable to do much about it. The Iraq Study Group advocates drawing down completely the combat troops by 2008, leaving behind only a limited number of troops imbedded in various Iraqi military units to continue training them. To me that seems suicidal if the militia-driven police forces continue to operate with impunity and are not purged of these murderous elements and put firmly under the control of a non-sectarian military.
Nicole Stracke, an analyst at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, recently advocated in an Arab News opinion article that Iraq needs to rebuild a strong military that would control the whole country, especially the various police forces, in order to put a stop to all of the sectarian violence that is tearing up the country. I agree with this analysis and think that it should be implemented as soon as possible.
But in order for this to happen the US must realize that arming the Shias to the gills with an unlimited supply of weapons is only fueling the sectarian violence. The Bush administration must stop acting as if it doesn’t know what is happening on the ground and stop the Shias before their unrelenting violence pulls Saudi Arabia and Iran directly into the conflict. It is well known that Iran is providing weapons to Shia militias in Iraq and some rich Saudis are funneling funds to Sunnis in Iraq. The Gulf Cooperation Council nations have already hinted this week that they are ready to acquire a “Sunni” nuclear bomb if the situation worsens in Iraq and if the US fails to stop Iran from building its own.
The Saudi government has allegedly told US Vice President Dick Cheney that if the US suddenly pulls out of Iraq, the Kingdom would step in and help the Sunnis financially, militarily and diplomatically. Nawaf Obaid, a former advisor to the Saudi government, said as much in a Washington Post opinion piece last week, and despite protestations by Saudi Ambassador to Washington Prince Turki Al-Faisal, that Obaid’s opinion did not reflect official Saudi thinking, I think he was used as a trial balloon to deliver a message to the Bush administration and American people.
The last thing Saudi Arabia needs at this point is to be dragged into a civil war in Iraq. It would be disastrous for Saudis, Iraqis and the world in general when oil prices shoot up because of the increased instability. The prospect of a nuclear showdown between Iran and Sunni Arab nations is not very likely, but do we even want to go there in the first place? I’m sure that Bush, Ahmajinadad and Abdullah would rather not.