Saudi Arabia Warns It Will Support Sunnis in Iraq

Saudi Arabia has warned that it would offer support to Sunnis in Iraq if U.S. forces withdraw. Madeleine Brand speaks with Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 about the implications of Saudi Arabian involvement in Iraq.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, this is DAY TO DAY.

There are a lot of what ifs if the United States reduces its military presence in Iraq. One possible reaction is a more active involvement of Iraq's neighbors, Iran and Syria, supporting the Shiites. And now Saudi Arabia is saying it might step in and support the Sunnis, financially.

The New York Times reports today that King Abdullah conveyed that message to Vice President Dick Cheney when they met two weeks in Riyadh. New Yorker magazine reporter Lawrence Wright is here. He's the author of the book, ”The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.” And welcome to the program.

Mr. LAWRENCE WRIGHT (New Yorker): Thank you, Madeleine.

BRAND: Now, the Sunni insurgency in Iraq is linked to al-Qaida, which is not particularly fond of the Saudi royal family and vice versa. So why would the Saudi's support that insurgency now?

Mr. WRIGHT: This is the greatest irony that Saudi Arabia could wind up being allied with al-Qaida in this effort, and it's a dreadful scenario. Of course, Saudi Arabia is preponderantly a Sunni country, but there is a substantial Shiite minority, perhaps 10 percent.

One of the paradoxes that you see in the Persian Gulf region, wherever there are Shiites there's oil. So in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia where the oil is, that's largely the Shiite section of the country. So the geopolitics and the petrol politics play a large part in this.

BRAND: So the Saudis would be concerned that should the Shia prevail in Iraq they would control more oil?

Mr. WRIGHT: They will feel more empowered to act within Saudi Arabia. They already are feeling like that, and the Saudis have been accommodating a certain new latitude for the Shiites for worshiping and other things within the kingdom. But they certainly would not like to see the Shiites within Saudi Arabia grow even more embolden as they might well if a Shiite regime comes into power in Iraq.

BRAND: So they're concerned that this might affect their internal politics. Are they also concerned that a Shiite ascendancy would empower Iran?

Mr. WRIGHT: Yes. There is a sense of who's going to be the regional (unintelligible) here. Saudi Arabia has been for a long time and to some extent this was because Iran was tied down by enemies on either side, the Taliban, in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

American forces and coalition forces eliminated those threats and really liberated Iran to become much more muscular in the region. And Iran's aspirations for nuclear weapons have also brought Saudi Arabia some degree of anxiety.

BRAND: How important is this warning from the Saudis for President Bush as he decided what to do in Iraq and a new Iraq strategy.

Mr. WRIGHT: It's a hugely important consideration of whether we're going to withdraw. The nightmare scenario that the Saudis are proposing is a war between all of the major oil producers: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq. All in contention, you know, within Iraq, but perhaps with the possibility of spilling out into widespread regional warfare.

It's not a negligible factor for the U.S. or the West, because the economies are so dependent on oil from that region that we would all be affected. Not just the U.S. but, every industrial country. So the prospects are that, you know, we could withdraw and then find ourselves drawn back into a much larger conflagration.

BRAND: Well, Lawrence Wright, thank you very much.

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, it was pleasure. Thank you, Madeleine.

BRAND: Lawrence Wright is the author of the book, “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.”

BRAND: Stay with us. DAY TO DAY returns in a moment.

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