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

Tue, Dec 27, 2011 - Page 9

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah told US diplomats that by toppling former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, the US had presented Iraq to Iran “on a golden platter.”

That assessment, recorded in a 2005 embassy cable released by WikiLeaks, was affirmed in the eyes of Saudi Arabia’s Sunni Muslim rulers by the outbreak of sectarian squabbling that followed last week’s departure of the last US troops from Iraq after almost nine years of occupation.

The decision by Shiite Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to seek the arrest of his Sunni vice president on terrorism charges has pushed Iraq’s fragile coalition to the verge of collapse, raising the specter of renewed civil war — with alarming implications for all its neighbors.

“The Saudi government is worried about the departure of American troops because now Iranian influence can become direct instead of indirect. There is nothing now to balance Iranian rule, so things might get worse,” one Saudi official said.

The chaos that followed the 2003 US invasion and toppling of Saddam turned Iraq into a regional bear pit, where Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria and Turkey backed different sides in a messy struggle that pitted Shiites against Sunnis and Arabs against Kurds.

For its part, Iraq’s Shiite-led government fears that the uprising in neighboring Syria may unhinge its own delicate sectarian balance, no longer protected by the US’ military presence.

Iraq’s Shiite leaders say they fear that a collapse of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ruling establishment, dominated by members of the Alawite Shiite sect and allied with Iran, may usher in a hardline Sunni government on its doorstep, risking a spillover of violence into Iraq and encouraging Iraqi Sunni militants.

“Nature abhors a vacuum and the relative power vacuum in Baghdad is going to draw in the neighbors,” said Stephen Biddle at the US-based Council of Foreign Relations.

Iran arguably now has more to lose from renewed fighting than the other regional heavyweights, particularly in light of the spiraling bloodshed in Syria, an ally that allowed Tehran to extend its influence as far as the Mediterranean.

Tehran’s clerical rulers were widely seen to have come out as the biggest winners after the fall of Saddam, with the emergence of their old ally Maliki and his Dawa party as the strongest political force in Iraq.

However, despite the risk that renewed unrest might alter this favorable political equation, Iran pushed for US troops to withdraw, regarding their presence on its western flank as a constant threat.

“The US withdrawal has created a power vacuum in Iraq, provoking Iran and Saudi Arabia to fill it in order to increase their influence in the region,” Iranian analyst Gholamhossein Mirvarzi said.

“By increasing its influence in Iraq, Iran aims to challenge the regional Sunni rivals, particularly after [potentially] losing its close ally in Syria,” he added.

Iranian officials say they want a calm and stable Iraq and are not seeking a Shiite monopoly on power.

However, as international sanctions have started to bite into the Iranian economy, inflating the prices of imported goods in Tehran’s warren-like bazaar, the rising tensions with Saudi Arabia have deepened its political isolation.

Meanwhile, feuding between factions loyal to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have become increasingly open.

“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.”