Friday, December 01, 2006

Saudi Arabia to back Sunni militias in Iraq

With a Democratic victory, support for an unpopular President and unpopular war remaining in the thirties, and a 'venerable' bipartisan commission set to recommend most US forces be pulled out of Iraq by early 2008, regional players in the Middle East are contemplating what to do as America leaves. The Bush Administration has been visiting recently with Egypt and Saudi Arabia to try and garner more support for stabilization in Iraq (that is, the US wants to counterbalance growing Shia power and influence). With the rise of the Mahdi Army, its offshoots, and other Shia militias that are threatening to give the majority Shia domination of the country, the Saudis are apparently ready to stand up for the minority Sunnis:
USING money, weapons or its oil power, Saudi Arabia will intervene to prevent Iranian-backed Shiite militias from massacring Iraqi Sunni Muslims once the United States begins pulling out of Iraq, a senior security adviser to the Saudi government said yesterday.

Diplomats and analysts say Iraq's Sunni Arab neighbours, led by Saudi Arabia, fear that the sectarian violence could spill into large-scale civil war between Shiites and Sunnis and set off a political earthquake far beyond Iraq.
The US knocked the secular Baathists out of power, and may see their former leader hanged. Early on, the insurgency was the work of Sunni leftovers and outside sympathizers who attacked both coalition forces and Shia targets. Led by al-Sistani's calls for restraint and hope for more democratization (which resulted in increasing Shia empowerment), Shia groups were mostly on the absorbing end of insurgent activity. But continued violence helped lead Sadr's militia and other Shia groups to power to combat Sunni attacks. Numerically superior, with access to oil revenues, control of the Iraqi government and security forces, and support from Iran, Shiites have gained the upperhand.

Saudi Arabia doesn't want to see Persian influence expand into Iraq. The kingdom has a sizable Shia minority in the east where much of its oil wealth lies. Any Iranian ambitions on controlling the Persian Gulf might be met with support in cities like Qatif. Iraq's Baathist minority under Saddam served as a buffer for the rest of the Sunni world from Islam's minority Shia in Iran and Central Asia. The House of Sa'ad already faces threats from groups like Al Qaeda and from discontented, unemployed masses (with an unemployment rate of up to 25%) and an ever-expanding number of costly heirs (in the thousands) living it up in plush places all across the globe. They don't want an Iranian marionette in Iraq to deal with on top of all that.

The Saudi official warns that his country might greatly increase global oil supply, driving down the price and ending Iran's gravy train:
Nawaf Obaid, writing in the Washington Post, said the Saudi leadership was preparing to revise its Iraq policy to deal with the aftermath of a US pullout, and is considering options including flooding the oil market to crash prices and thus limit Iran's ability to finance Shiite militias in Iraq.
This would give the global economy a short-term boost, but it wouldn't be good for alternative energy research. The threat of drastically lower oil prices always hangs over the heads of alternative energy pioneers like the Sword of Damocles.

But how much can the Saudis do? Currently, the country is producing around 9.5 million barrels a day. The Department of Energy believes that the kingdom's total capacity is between 10.5-11 million barrels per day. A million more barrels might bring the price down $5 or so, setting Iran back $20 million in revenues per day. A couple of years ago, Saudi Arabia pledged to have a 12 million barrel per day capacity by 2009, so the DOE's estimate on current production seems plausible.

Supplying Sunni groups with cash and weaponry is something the Saudis should be able to do, however. They faced budget deficits going into 2004, but the run in oil prices has left the country with a budget surplus approaching $100 billion. Along with the CIA, the Saudis were able to embarrass the Soviets in their war in Afghanistan for less than $200 million a year [in the early eighties--that combined amount topped $1 billion annually as Gorbachev contratcted Soviet forces from the country in the latter part of the decade].

Will the quixotic neocons and liberals balk at what Obaid's Saudi Arabia is considering?
Mr Obaid listed three options being considered by the Saudi government:

• providing Sunni military leaders (ex-Iraqi officer corps, now the backbone of the insurgency) with funding and arms.
• establishing new Sunni brigades to combat the Iranian-backed Shiite militias.
• choking off Iran's ability to fund the militias by flooding the oil market .
We've heard plenty about how Iran and Syria must stop funneling weapons and cash into Iraq, fueling chaos there. Now the Saudis are telling us they are doing the same. The article reports that a US diplomat says Saudi Arabia is already funding Sunni groups in Iraq. Iraq is shaping up to become a battleground for proxy wars being fought between Shia and Sunni groups on behalf of Iran and much of the Sunni world like Saudi Arabia, respectively. Expect to see the Iranians contiue to work toward obtaining nuclear weapons.

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