The Saudi government warned that on Friday Iraq is hurtling towards disintegration and that an election planned for December is unlikely to make any difference. The government said it was delivering this bleak assessment to both the US and British administrations as a matter of urgency.
Saudi fears of a break-up were voiced by Prince Saud al-Faisal, the foreign minister, in an interview that was published yesterday, and at a meeting on Thursday night with the US media, including the New York Times and the Washington Post. He said: "The impression is gradually going toward disintegration. There seems to be no dynamic now that is pulling the country together. All the dynamics there are pushing the people away from each other."
His comments are the most pessimistic about Iraq to be made in public by a Middle East leader in recent months.
Prince Saud, who is meeting Bush administration officials in Washington, said his government warned the US before the war of the consequences of the invasion but was ignored.
"It is frustrating to see something that is clearly going to happen, and you are not listened to by a friend, and soon harm comes out of it. It hurts."
Saudi Arabia sits on a council with other Iraqi neighbors -- Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Syria and Turkey -- and Prince Saud said the main worry is that the break-up of Iraq "will draw the countries of the region into conflict."
Turkey is worried about an independent Kurdish state in the north of Iraq and Saudi Arabia, which is primarily made up of Sunni Muslims, is concerned about the growing influence of Iran in southern Iraq through its co-religionists, the Shias.
The Saudi fear is not only that Iran would be greatly strengthened but that it would be tempted to extend its influence further by creating unrest among the small communities of Shia in the north of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.
He expressed scepticism about US predictions that security in Iraq will improve after the election. A referendum on Iraq's new constitution is planned for Oct. 15 and a general election in December. The US and Britain hope that the election will be a watershed.
"Perhaps what they are saying is going to happen," Prince Saud said. "I wish it would happen, but I don't think that a constitution by itself will resolve the issues."
The US response to his warnings was to predict an improvement after the referendum and the election. Prince Saud said: "But what I am trying to do is say that unless something is done to bring Iraqis together, elections alone won't do it."
The US has been pressing Saudi Arabia, along with other Arab states, to help Iraq by sending diplomatic representation to the country. But Saudi Arabia has been reluctant to comply following the kidnapping and murder this summer of Ihab al-Sharif, the Egyptian ambassador to Iraq, and Ali Belaroussi, the head of the Algerian mission, and his colleague Izzedine Belkadi, a diplomatic attache.
Prince Saud said a Saudi ambassador in Baghdad would become an immediate target for assassination. "I doubt that he'd last a day."
The prince blamed the unrest partly on a series of US decisions since the invasion. He claimed the US was guilty of alienating the Sunni population by designating "every Sunni as a Baathist criminal."