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Saudis Say the U.S., Not Iraq, Threatens Stability

Mideast: Many believe Saddam Hussein has been subdued by his military defeats but would be provoked by an invasion.

September 22, 2002|MICHAEL SLACKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — This longtime ally of America isn't convinced that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein poses a serious and imminent military threat to regional stability and security. That threat, Saudi Arabia believes, comes from another source: the United States, top officials say.

Many here believe that Hussein has been chastened by his military failures and is unlikely to wage war on his neighbors--unless the U.S. decides to invade.

"The U.S. may know something about the existence of chemical weapons in Iraq, but we are not sure," said the nation's longtime security chief, Interior Minister Prince Nayif ibn Abdulaziz, adding that a U.S. attack on Iraq would create problems in the region "faster than any Iraqi operation against its neighbors."

For more than 70 years, Saudi Arabia and the United States have had close ties, a marriage of convenience that has served their mutual political and strategic interests. But relations have been strained since the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S., and the priorities of both countries have diverged.

The U.S. government wants Hussein ousted. The Saudi leadership wants the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolved first. Neither side has been willing to budge.

Against this backdrop, the White House faces the prospect of waging a major military campaign in the Persian Gulf region without the key strategic support of Saudi Arabia.

"The Saudis don't regard Saddam as a military threat," said a high-level Western diplomat based here in Riyadh, the capital. "For the Saudis, he is a political threat. The Saudis fear U.S. military action will not only divert attention and break up a coalition to fight terrorism but will also foster terrorism."

So far, the Saudi government has been very clear. If the U.S. goes it alone, without the endorsement of the United Nations, the Saudi government will refuse to allow the use of its territory.

When authorities said recently that they would allow U.S. forces to operate here if there is a U.N. resolution, observers say, the goal was to thwart a war by pressuring Hussein to let in weapons inspectors. It was not meant as a nod to the U.S. agenda, they say.

"Anything that will avoid military operations against Iraq, or military operations in the region, will be a positive act," Nayif said in an interview.

This reluctance to attack Iraq reflects the significant differences between what is happening today and what occurred in 1990, when Hussein invaded Kuwait and the entire area felt threatened by the region's largest armed force.

"Saddam's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 posed the gravest threat to Saudi Arabia's security that I had yet encountered in my military career," Prince Khaled bin Sultan wrote in "Desert Warrior: A Personal View of the Gulf War by the Joint Forces Commander." "Our vital oil-producing Eastern province--the principal source of our national wealth--lay open to his mechanized and armored divisions."

Saudi Arabia is a large land mass, with a relatively small population living on top of a valuable resource: one-fourth of the world's known oil reserves. It is surrounded by unpredictable neighbors, such as Iraq and Iran, and its leadership strives to preserve credibility in a nation that has blended political and religious authority. An alliance with the United States has helped the Saud dynasty maintain the status quo.

For these reasons, Saudi Arabia continues to allow the U.S. to fly military patrols over a "no-fly" zone set up in southern Iraq after the 1991 Persian Gulf War and allowed America to use a high-tech command center to run the war in Afghanistan.

Although the United States has moved thousands of its troops out of the kingdom, about 5,000 U.S. military personnel remain in Saudi Arabia, as well as the command center, which could be quietly used in an Iraqi operation.

At the moment, officials, diplomats and political observers say there is no fear that Baghdad will attack any neighbor. But there is a fear that if the U.S. strikes, Hussein could lash out, perhaps targeting the oil fields.

U.S. officials in the region are paying close attention to what the Saudi government is saying, although they say there is no sign that it is wavering in its opposition to a war. Saudi Arabia's leadership has a reputation of choosing its words carefully and rarely being duplicitous.

"They conceivably could have a powerful role if they offered facilities to support some sort of response to Iraq's flouting of U.N. resolutions," said a high-level U.S. diplomat from the region. "It would be practically very important--plus, it would be a huge signal throughout the Arab world."

Even during the Gulf War there were elements of concern, ideas that today have come to define the national policy. Some Saudi leaders didn't like the idea of Arabs fighting Arabs, and they worried that an invasion of Iraq could have negative consequences for the rest of the region.

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