Tue, Dec 27, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Iraq’s neighbors are watching its sectarian rift with unease

Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have a lot to gain, and lose, depending on how events evolve in Iraq after the final US troops left the volatile country last week

By Angus McDowall and Parisa Hafezi  /  Reuters, RIYADH and TEHRAN

“Considering Iran’s domestic problems and the developments in Syria, Iran will not be able to play a central security role in Iraq after the US withdrawal,” Iranian analyst Hossein Farshchian said.

Across the Gulf, Saudi Arabia has long seen Iraq as the fulcrum of a sectarian divide that could stir unrest among its own Shiite minority, concentrated in its oil-producing Eastern Province.

In recent months, those concerns seemed to become more urgent, as the Arab Spring inspired a revolt among the Shiite majority in Bahrain, whose Sunni ruling family is one of Saudi Arabia’s closest allies.

Small protests erupted among Saudi Shiites and persisted throughout the year. Riyadh accused an unnamed foreign power of instigating violence, hinting that Iran was to blame.

These tensions go some way toward explaining why King Abdullah, whose mother’s Shammar tribe includes thousands of Sunni Iraqis, has kept Maliki at arm’s length.

In 2008, Saudi intelligence chief Prince Muqrin told US diplomats that Abdullah viewed the Iraqi prime minister as untrustworthy and “Iranian 100 percent,” according to a cable released by WikiLeaks.

In recent weeks, some Iraqi officials have seen a foreign hand behind the push for more autonomy by mainly Sunni provinces bordering Saudi Arabia, Syria and Jordan.

Yet for all that, the influence of Saudi Arabia, which has still not reopened the Baghdad embassy that it closed when Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1991, remains limited.

“What can be worse than what has already happened? The Americans leaving will affect Iran more than Saudi Arabia because Saudi Arabia does not have a heavy presence in Iraq,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a former Saudi newspaper editor with ties to the royal family. “It had its friends there, but it kept its distance.”

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