RIYADH, (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia should try to avert Iraq’s fragmentation by lobbying against any premature withdrawal of U.S. forces and by pressing Iran to stop meddling, a report by a security adviser to the Saudi government says.
“A civil war may well be inevitable. Such a development would have the gravest implications for the entire region, especially Saudi Arabia, which shares its longest international borders with Iraq,” Nawaf Obaid said in his report on how Saudi Arabia should respond to the situation in Iraq.
The report, released by the U.S.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, was based on dozens of interviews with military and intelligence officials in the region, and numerous conversations with Iranian officials, Obaid said.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal said in remarks broadcast by state media on Sunday that the violence in Iraq could only be described as a civil war.
Analysts fear tensions between Iraqi Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds may spill over in Saudi Arabia where some Shi’ites feel they are an oppressed minority. Obaid said it was crucial for Saudi Arabia to try to foster a stable and unified Iraq.
“Saudi Arabia has a vested interest in preserving the integrity of Iraq and safeguarding the rights of Sunnis in a country dominated by Shi’ites,” Obaid said.
Riyadh could mitigate the crisis by improving communications with the United States on the extent and strength of the Iraqi insurgency and by “neutralising Iranian interference”, he said.
Obaid said a premature U.S. withdrawal would “precipitate a civil war and an immediate disintegration of the state”. Saudi Arabia should try to use its influence in Washington to prevent this, he said, and should also open talks with Iran.
“Tehran now sees an opportunity to fulfil one of the most cherished aims of the Iranian revolutionary experiment, ‘to export the revolution’. More simply stated, it wants to expand the reach of Shi’ite Islam,” the report said.
“The time has now arrived…to open a dialogue with Tehran and to make it clear that the Kingdom is conscious of their covert activities in Iraq.
“The Saudi leadership should unequivocally state that if these activities are not checked, it will be forced to consider a similar overt and covert programme of its own,” Obaid wrote.
He said only talks with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Revolutionary Guard chiefs could produce results.
Saudi-Iranian tensions ran high after Tehran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, but relations have been on a more stable footing for several years. Iran denies interfering in Iraq and has agreed to hold talks with U.S. diplomats on stabilising its neighbour.
Obaid said Riyadh could send a strong regional message by inviting Grand Ayotollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraqi Shi’ites who is also revered by Saudi Shi’ites, to visit shrines in Saudi Arabia.
It would show that Riyadh recognises his authority and respects those who regard him as the leading Shi’ite cleric.
Obaid said Saudi Arabia, Iraq’s largest creditor, should also start talks to scrap an estimated $32 billion debt.
“It will send a strong message that the Kingdom is not acting out of sectarian interests, but in the interests of Iraq and the region at large,” he said.