BAGHDAD — Although Bush administration officials have frequently lashed out at Syria and Iran, accusing it of helping insurgents and militias here, the largest number of foreign fighters and suicide bombers in Iraq come from a third neighbor, Saudi Arabia, according to a senior U.S. military officer and Iraqi lawmakers.
About 45% of all foreign militants targeting U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians and security forces are from Saudi Arabia; 15% are from Syria and Lebanon; and 10% are from North Africa, according to official U.S. military figures made available to The Times by the senior officer. Nearly half of the 135 foreigners in U.S. detention facilities in Iraq are Saudis, he said.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 18, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction
Saudi fighters: An article in Sunday's Section A about Saudi insurgents in Iraq said the U.S. military had 135 foreigners in detention facilities in Iraq. The number of detainees is 130. The article also said that 15% of foreign militants targeting U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians and security forces were from Syria or Lebanon. That figure is 20%.
Fighters from Saudi Arabia are thought to have carried out more suicide bombings than those of any other nationality, said the senior U.S. officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the subject's sensitivity. It is apparently the first time a U.S. official has given such a breakdown on the role played by Saudi nationals in Iraq's Sunni Arab insurgency.
He said 50% of all Saudi fighters in Iraq come here as suicide bombers. In the last six months, such bombings have killed or injured 4,000 Iraqis.
The situation has left the U.S. military in the awkward position of battling an enemy whose top source of foreign fighters is a key ally that at best has not been able to prevent its citizens from undertaking bloody attacks in Iraq, and at worst shares complicity in sending extremists to commit attacks against U.S. forces, Iraqi civilians and the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.
The problem casts a spotlight on the tangled web of alliances and enmities that underlie the political relations between Muslim nations and the U.S.
In the 1980s, the Saudi intelligence service sponsored Sunni Muslim fighters for the U.S.-backed Afghan mujahedin battling Soviet troops in Afghanistan. At the time, Saudi intelligence cultivated another man helping the Afghan fighters, Osama bin Laden, the future leader of Al Qaeda who would one day turn against the Saudi royal family and mastermind the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon. Indeed, Saudi Arabia has long been a source of a good portion of the money and manpower for Al Qaeda: 15 of the 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks were Saudi.
Now, a group that calls itself Al Qaeda in Iraq is the greatest short-term threat to Iraq's security, U.S. military spokesman Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner said Wednesday.
The group, one of several Sunni Muslim insurgent groups operating in Baghdad and beyond, relies on foreigners to carry out suicide attacks because Iraqis are less likely to undertake such strikes, which the movement hopes will provoke sectarian violence, Bergner said. Despite its name, the extent of the group's links to Bin Laden's network, based along the Afghan-Pakistani frontier, is unclear.
The Saudi government does not dispute that some of its youths are ending up as suicide bombers in Iraq, but says it has done everything it can to stop the bloodshed.
"Saudis are actually being misused. Someone is helping them come to Iraq. Someone is helping them inside Iraq. Someone is recruiting them to be suicide bombers. We have no idea who these people are. We aren't getting any formal information from the Iraqi government," said Gen. Mansour Turki, spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry.
"If we get good feedback from the Iraqi government about Saudis being arrested in Iraq, probably we can help," he said.
Defenders of Saudi Arabia pointed out that it has sought to control its lengthy border with Iraq and has fought a bruising domestic war against Al Qaeda since Sept. 11.
"To suggest they've done nothing to stem the flow of people into Iraq is wrong," said a U.S. intelligence official in Washington, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "People do get across that border. You can always ask, 'Could more be done?' But what are they supposed to do, post a guard every 15 or 20 paces?"
Others contend that Saudi Arabia is allowing fighters sympathetic to Al Qaeda to go to Iraq so they won't create havoc at home.
Iraqi Shiite lawmaker Sami Askari, an advisor to Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, accused Saudi officials of a deliberate policy to sow chaos in Baghdad.
"The fact of the matter is that Saudi Arabia has strong intelligence resources, and it would be hard to think that they are not aware of what is going on," he said.
Askari also alleged that imams at Saudi mosques call for jihad, or holy war, against Iraq's Shiites and that the government had funded groups causing unrest in Iraq's largely Shiite south. Sunni extremists regard Shiites as unbelievers.