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Wednesday, Nov 29, 2006, 6:55 pm

Potential Future for Iraq: Saudi Arabia v Iran

By Brian Zick
Nawaf Obaid, identified as "an adviser to the Saudi government" and "managing director of the Saudi National Security Assessment Project in Riyadh," wrote an op-ed in today's WaPo, wherein he says:
In February 2003, a month before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, warned President Bush that he would be "solving one problem and creating five more" if he removed Saddam Hussein by force. Had Bush heeded his advice, Iraq would not now be on the brink of full-blown civil war and disintegration.
(...)
Just a few months ago it was unthinkable that President Bush would prematurely withdraw a significant number of American troops from Iraq. But it seems possible today, and therefore the Saudi leadership is preparing to substantially revise its Iraq policy. Options now include providing Sunni military leaders (primarily ex-Baathist members of the former Iraqi officer corps, who make up the backbone of the insurgency) with the same types of assistance -- funding, arms and logistical support -- that Iran has been giving to Shiite armed groups for years.

Another possibility includes the establishment of new Sunni brigades to combat the Iranian-backed militias. Finally, Abdullah may decide to strangle Iranian funding of the militias through oil policy. If Saudi Arabia boosted production and cut the price of oil in half, the kingdom could still finance its current spending. But it would be devastating to Iran, which is facing economic difficulties even with today's high prices. The result would be to limit Tehran's ability to continue funneling hundreds of millions each year to Shiite militias in Iraq and elsewhere.
David Corn has suspicions that the op-ed was conveniently timed as cover for Jim Baker and his Iraq Study Group, who must address the growing chorus of demands for troop withdrawals.
It's a chilling piece. It might even be true: a US pullout could lead to a greater civil war that draws in other nations and leads to worse. But I can't help wondering if Obaid's piece is an attempt to provide cover for former Secretary of State James Baker and his Iraq Study Group, which is supposed to be releasing its recommendations within weeks. Baker and his fellow commissioners have a problem: what to say about withdrawing troops. The ten members of the bipartisan panel are likely divided on this critical point. The Democrats on the panel know that their party leaders in Congress have been advocating disengagement. Republicans on the panel know their president has said he will not bring back the troops. How can Baker square this circle?
Steve Clemons sees it as a reassuring development:
What Obaid has articulated here is not offered as a threat if the US leaves Iraq, which the US must do in my view. This is the first robust declaration that the Saudis are willing to fill the vacuum left by the United State in the region and knock back some of the unchecked expansion of Iranian influence in the region.

It's not good to have rising powers with pretensions of future greatness clashing like this -- but there is NO CHOICE.

And frankly, it's much better to have the Saudis engaged that not engaged in Iraq. Iran must be balanced -- and while this may seem like an escalation, it actually is an important potential cap on a worsening of this increasingly ulcerous mess in Iraq.
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