Saudis Nervously Watch al-Hakim's U.S. Visit

Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim's visit to Washington, D.C., may raise concerns for one of Iraq's neighbors, Saudi Arabia. Analyst Youssef Ibrahim talks with Debbie Elliott about what some are calling a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran that is currently playing out on Iraqi soil.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

If Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim does push to expand Iran's influence in Iraq, he will deeply unsettle at least one of Iraq's neighbors, Saudi Arabia. For more on this, we turn to Youssef Ibrahim, a longtime Middle East watcher and former journalist who's now in the risk assessment business.

I asked him how tomorrow's visit is seen in Saudi Arabia.

Mr. YOUSSEF IBRAHIM (Strategic Energy Investment Group): Well, in the general, the Saudis have been anxious and upset about the ascendancy of Shiite structure in Iraq, having already been upset for the last 20 years about an ascendant and very activist Shiite regime in Iran. And the reason for this, of course, is that they have a lot of Shiites in Saudi Arabia and they have them specifically in the oil producing regions.

ELLIOTT: Now, you have been following all of this in the Saudi press. What are you reading there about al-Hakim's planned visit with President Bush?

Mr. IBRAHIM: The visit itself is just coming onto the screen now. And I read yesterday and today a few columns in two Saudi newspapers expressions of anxiety about the failure of the Maliki government, the behavior of Maliki in Jordan, the fact that the current government is not proving to be much better than the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, and with hints that the Hamas government failure is there to begin Iranian influence.

So basically you can feel that they are beginning to put the spotlight on the connection: Iran-Shiite catastrophe.

ELLIOTT: We've heard from our correspondents in Baghdad that there is talk that Iraq is now becoming a proxy battleground between the competing Saudi and Iranian interests.

Mr. IBRAHIM: I'm afraid it is definitely heading in that direction. And it's not only Saudi. We know from intelligence reports and from several contacts in the region that the Jordanians are helping the Sunnis in there and eventually the Egyptians will be involved.

ELLIOTT: Now, you say there are Intelligence reports that the Jordanians have actually been helping Sunnis in Iraq, and just this past week an advisor to the Saudi government had a piece in the Washington Post saying that Saudi Arabia might be stepping in and supporting Sunnis should the United States pull out. Now, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. has denied this. What's your sense? Would the Saudi government prepare to give military support to the Iraqi Sunnis?

Mr. IBRAHIM: I have absolutely no doubt that this is going to happen. They have joint borders, and in fact the Kuwaitis are doing the same thing as well. And it's not only weapons. Mostly so far it's really been money and insurgent connections and smuggling of people. I mean people are going in there to fight and the borders are porous.

ELLIOTT: Now, the Saudi government has ordered the construction of a fence along its border with Iraq, a 560-mile fence. Now, is this for security reasons or is this to prevent the flow of refugees?

Mr. IBRAHIM: It's without any question for security reasons. They can handle Iraqi refugees and there aren't really that many Iraqi Sunni who will seek refuge in Saudi Arabia. I mean they prefer to live in Jordan or Syria.

ELLIOTT: Youssef Ibrahim is managing director of the Strategic Energy Investment Group. Thank you for talking with us.

Mr. IBRAHIM: Thank you.

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