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Saudis and Iran prepare to do battle over corpse of Iraq

By Philip Sherwell in New York, Sunday Telegraph

12/02/06 "
The Telegraph" -- -- The gulf's two military powers, Sunni-Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, are lining up behind their warring religious brethren in Iraq in a potentially explosive showdown, as expectations grow in both countries that America is preparing a pull-out of its troops.

The Saudis are understood to be considering providing Sunni military leaders with funding, logistical support and even arms, as Iran already does for Shia militia in Iraq.

The strategy — outlined in an article last week by Nawaf Obaid, a senior security adviser to the kingdom's government — risks spiralling into a proxy war between Saudi and Iranian-backed factions in the next development in Iraq's vicious sectarian conflict.

Saudi Arabia, America's closest ally in the Arab world, is considering backing anti-US insurgents because it is so alarmed that Sunnis in Iraq will be left to their fate — military and political — at the hands of the Shia majority.

However, a Saudi government spokesman said yesterday that Mr Obaid's view "does not reflect the kingdom's policy, which uphold the security, unity and stability of Iraq with all its sects."
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President George Bush sent vice-president Dick Cheney to Riyadh last weekend after the Saudis demanded high-level talks about their concerns. They told him Iran was trying to establish itself as the dominant regional power through its influence in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

Saudi fears were strengthened as it emerged that some senior US intelligence officials are urging the Bush administration to abandon stalled attempts to reach a compromise with Sunni dissidents and adopt a controversial "pick a winner" strategy instead, giving priority to Shia and Kurd political factions.

The proposal is also known as the "80 per cent solution" since the Sunnis, who ruled the country under Saddam Hussein, comprise just 20 per cent of Iraq's 26 million population. It has been put forward as part of a crash White House review of Iraq strategy. Its backers claim that ambitious attempts to woo anti-US Sunni insurgents have failed, and now risk alienating Shia leaders as well, leaving the US without strong political allies in Iraq.

As the frenzy of diplomatic activity intensifies, the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel of foreign policy experts, this week plans to recommend the US withdraws nearly all of combat troops by early 2008.

Although President Bush continues to insist he will not tie US policy to timetables for withdrawal, the panel's recommendations will fuel the belief that a major US pull-out will be under way soon.

The issue was at the fore yesterday when 40 people were killed and more than 80 wounded after three car bombs exploded in Baghdad. The attacks came after US and Iraqi forces raided insurgent strongholds in the city of Baquba.

In Teheran, Iranian leaders have made clear that they believe they are the big winners from America's involvement in Iraq. "The kind of service that the Americans, with all their hatred, have done us — no superpower has ever done anything similar," Mohsen Rezai, secretary-general of the powerful Expediency Council that advises the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamanei, boasted on state television recently.

"America destroyed all our enemies in the region. It destroyed the Taliban. It destroyed Saddam Hussein… The Americans got so stuck in the soil of Iraq and Afghanistan that if they manage to drag themselves back to Washington in one piece, they should thank God. America presents us with an opportunity rather than a threat — not because it intended to, but because it miscalculated. They made many mistakes".

Iran also watched with pleasure as America, Britain, France and Germany failed to persuade Russia and China to sign up to a package of sanctions against Iran in a draft United Nations Security Council resolution. The West wanted to punish Tehran for pushing ahead with banned uranium enrichment for its nuclear programme. The US is now drawing up plans for a diplomatic "coalition of the willing" to pursue sanctions outside UN auspices.

The Iraq Study Group is also expected to recommend opening dialogue with Iran and Syria over Iraq, a move being resisted by hardliners who rule out talks with two regimes that are fomenting violence. However, in a break with previous policy, Mr Bush will meet tomorrow in Washington with Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a party closely tied to Iran.

The talks are part of US efforts to strengthen links with Shia politicians and to undercut the influence of Moqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand cleric and militia leader on whose support the prime minister Nuri al-Maliki depends.

The meeting will fuel Sunni fears they are being sidelined even though the White House also announced plans for future talks with the country's Sunni deputy prime-minister.

Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2006

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