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Despite Reports Showing Nearly Half of Foreign Militants in Iraq are Saudi, White House and Lawmakers Keeping Sights on Iran

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The Los Angeles Times is reporting nearly half of all foreign militants targeting U.S. troops in Iraq have come from Saudi Arabia — one of Washington’s closest allies in the Middle East. U.S. officials have so far refused to publicly criticize Saudi Arabia’s role in Iraq, focusing instead on Iran. We go to Baghdad to speak to L.A. Times correspondent Ned Parker. We’re also joined by Toby Jones, a former Persian Gulf analyst with the International Crisis Group and history professor at Rutgers University. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Iraq to speak with Ned Parker, staff reporter for the Los Angeles Times. He joins us from Baghdad. Ned Parker recently wrote a widely read article on how Sunni militants from Saudi Arabia make up half the foreign fighters in Iraq. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Ned Parker.

NED PARKER: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. We saw over and over again on the Senate floor, as ultimately the attempt to pass the resolution that would begin withdrawal of troops from Iraq was defeated, we saw Iran raised and the idea that in Iraq U.S. soldiers were fighting off Iranian insurgents, and that was part of what the battle in Iraq was all about, taking on Iran. You found that, in fact, there are more Saudi than Iranian foreign fighters in Iraq. How do you know this?

NED PARKER: Well, I mean, the Iranian issue is complicated, to say the least. And I don’t — it’s from America’s, U.S. military’s own numbers about foreign fighters in Iraq, that there are more Saudis fighting in Iraq than Iranians. I mean, that said, the Iranian element, there’s no doubt that the Iranians are involved in Iraq, and if they are backing Shia militias, the military believes that this is with full government backing.

The Saudi issue is more complicated, because it’s not really clear what the Saudi government is really doing. Are they actively involved in sending these Saudi fighters to Iraq, or are they just sort of letting it happen as a way to pressure the Shia government there? So, and then, Saudis are the United States’s allies [inaudible], so there’s all that at play.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And your report also gives some indication of the total number of foreign fighters, which I found — or at least the ones that are in custody, which I found to be somewhat low, in terms of what we might imagine. Could you talk about the actual numbers?

NED PARKER: Right. I mean, their numbers — I mean, it’s still — I think the Americans would even say that their numbers aren’t precise. It’s based upon detainees arrested over the years, detainees currently in prison. Right now there’s, I think, 130 foreign fighters in U.S. custody. Of those, 45 percent are Saudi. The United States guesses that there are between 60 and 80 foreign fighters who cross into Iraq each month through Syria, so almost half of those, according to the United States, have been Saudi. So it is actually — it’s a fairly low number in the scheme of things, and the United States, even in releasing these numbers, were saying that the Saudi foot soldiers are being used as suicide bombers, for the most part, or fighters on the ground, people with, you know, a very quick shelf life, that are probably going to die. But they’re quite open about the fact that the majority of al-Qaeda in Iraq, even if it has a foreign leadership, is Iraqi, and, I mean, that shouldn’t be lost sight of. The vast majority of al-Qaeda in Iraq is Iraqi.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what did the military brass in Iraq tell you about their efforts to try to get Saudi Arabia to somehow or other control the jihadist fighters that are leaving their country?

NED PARKER: Well, we — the officers I’ve spoken with, they believe that the Saudi government should be doing a tougher job on its border with Jordan, because that’s the flow of Saudi fighters to Iraq, often by bus or plane, be it Jordan to Syria or by plane perhaps direct to Syria. So their objection is that there’s no sense of real vigorous screening of the males crossing the border, meaning that if they fit a certain profile, there’s no questioning of them. They just let people go. It’s not suspicious if they have very little money, you know, narrow possessions, think they’re going for a very short trip. There’s no effort to stop them, according to the U.S. military officers I’ve spoken with — or the Iraqis, for that matter.

AMY GOODMAN: And what are the military brass saying about the fact that they are Saudi? I mean, I think most people in this country, they now believe there are a number of Iranians fighting in Iraq, not Saudis, in the same way that probably many people in the United States don’t realize the vast majority of those who flew the planes on 9/11 were Saudi and not Iraqi.

NED PARKER: [inaudible] frustration [inaudible] more needs to be done and a sense of, I think, frustration, that the issue isn’t dealt with publicly, that because Saudi Arabia is an ally of the United States, a decision has been made for diplomatic reasons to not publicize this number, but the numbers are right. And even after the article came out, the State Department officials, you know, grudgingly admitted that it was correct here in Iraq.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Ned, how is it for you to report in Iraq right now?

NED PARKER: How easy is it? It is a very difficult place to report right now. We still do get out and go around Baghdad, whether on embeds or just going solo on our own. But, you know, everything has to be done very carefully, because it definitely is a dangerous place to work for everyone.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And could you tell us also — you interviewed some Saudi officials — their reaction to the criticisms that they’re getting about not controlling the people leaving their country? What was the Saudi official reaction to your story?

NED PARKER: Well, you know, I think there’s a wide variety of opinions among Saudi officials. When I was writing the article, I spoke with a spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry, and he was quite blunt about the fact that it is a huge problem that Saudis are going to fight in Iraq, and — but, you know, I asked about their ability to do more to stop the flow, the spokesman said, you know, “It’s not our fault. We’re not going to screen our citizens who are traveling abroad. The Iraqi government doesn’t talk to us.” The other hand, the Iraqis will say that “We constantly try to engage the Saudis about this issue, and there has not been any strong interest by the Saudis to help.”

Now, depending on how you want to view the situation, it very much plays into probably this antagonism between Saudi Arabia, which is a very Sunni country, fundamentalist, conservative, that sees Iraq with a Shiite-led majority as a potential threat as a possible, you know, proxy for Iran. So all of that comes into play. Saudi officials have been critical of al-Qaeda. They had certainly fought their own war with al-Qaeda inside Saudi Arabia. But then, if you’re a fighter going to Iraq, it’s just another, you know, side to it, another dimension to the problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Ned Parker, last week in President Bush’s news conference, he didn’t mention Saudi foreign fighters, but he blamed Syria for not stopping suicide bombers from going into Iraq through Syria.

NED PARKER: Mm-hmm. Sure. And, I mean, there’s probably — media probably has a legitimate, I suppose, grievance that I’m saying that. I mean, there are Syrian intel officers on the borders, and there isn’t real, from what I’m told, effort to stop the flow. But could he say the same thing about Saudi Arabia? It sounds like he could. Certainly U.S. military officials believe so, and Iraqi officials. And the proof is in the pudding. I mean, the most foreign fighters in Iraq are Saudi, but Saudi Arabia is the United States’s ally. In Saudi Arabia it seems that certainly the Saudis are involved in trying break whatever, quote-unquote, “Islamist extremist al-Qaeda cells.” So how do you deal with an ally who might be trying it both ways? It’s a tough one. And so, Syria is considered an enemy by the United States. Saudi Arabia is not, so it does not get singled out in the same way.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Ned Parker, what President Bush calls the surge, the increased number of U.S. soldiers in Iraq, what effect has this had?

NED PARKER: I’m sorry. Can you repeat that? I couldn’t quite hear you.

AMY GOODMAN: What effect has the surge had, the increased number of U.S. soldiers in Iraq?

NED PARKER: I mean, I think it has had an effect. I mean, it’s — the problem is that the surge is taking place within a politically charged debate in the United States between Democrats and Republicans, and perhaps a lot of the feelings about Iraq reflect disillusionment or disenchantment with the president’s leadership. But the surge itself, I mean, it definitely has in some areas stabilized the situation. It doesn’t mean that things are safe. It just means that the killing has gone down a bit. Now, if you care about Iraqis, and you live with Iraqis, and you witness what they’re going through every day, that’s a good thing. Certainly, though, people are still dying. I think the surge will take time, and probably the expectations with a timeline in the United States for how long it should take are unrealistic. It will probably take much longer.

AMY GOODMAN: Ned Parker, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Ned Parker, speaking to us from Baghdad, staff writer with the Los Angeles Times. Be safe.


AMY GOODMAN: In recent weeks, lawmakers have repeatedly warned about the role played by foreign militants in Iraq, but the focus has not been Saudi Arabia, but Iran. This is what Independent Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut said on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: I had an Arab diplomat say to me two weeks ago that what is happening in the Middle East today reminds him of what happened in Europe during the 1930s, when Nazi Germany began to make moves and the rest of Europe and the United States did not act quick enough to stop the Second World War. He was talking about Iran. Iran is on the move in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Afghanistan. And if we pull out of Iraq, Iran and al-Qaeda are the victors. And so, my answer is, as long as we have a reasonable chance of success in Iraq, then I am going to say it’s worth it for us to stay, because if Iran and al-Qaeda take over Iraq, they will destabilize the entire Middle East, and they will strike at us here at home —

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me, let me turn —

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: — with more frequency and ferocity.

AMY GOODMAN: I also want to bring into this conversation Toby Jones, former Persian Gulf analyst with the International Crisis Group, completing a fellowship at Swarthmore College, teaching history at Rutgers University this fall.

Can you elaborate on what the reporter in Baghdad was talking to us about?

TOBY JONES: It’s certainly not breaking news that Saudis have been involved in Iraq since early in 2003. As early as 2004 and 2005, when I was last in the Gulf for an extended period of time, there were figures tossed about by both Saudi officials and citizens alike that there were upwards of 2,500 to 3,000 Saudis to that point who had traveled from the kingdom to Iraq to participate in the insurgency. I think the kingdom has done a better job in recent years trying to crack down on the flow of militants back and forth between the two countries, but it’s certainly unable to control or stem the tide completely.

And that’s compounded by an additional problem that Saudi security and police officials are unable to or have proven unwilling to crack down on the ideologues within the kingdom who foment both anti-American sentiment and a growing anti-Shiism, which simply supports or provides secour to Saudis who desire to go and fight in the jihad.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But then the press attention and the emphasis of our political leaders in this country don’t deal with the fact either that so many of the foreign fighters are coming from Saudi Arabia or that they are retraining and regrouping in Pakistan, in terms of the continuing war of al-Qaeda. These are, of course, two American allies in the Middle East.

TOBY JONES: It’s symptomatic of the war more generally, in that the United States has proven mostly incapable of managing the political forces that are driving violence in both of those two places. It’s unwilling to sacrifice its alliances for whatever — however it defines its interests in the region. In the case of Saudi Arabia, it’s both because the U.S. considers Saudi Arabia to be a stabilizing ally, perhaps ironically, given its role in destabilizing Iraq, and Pakistan similarly in Central Asia. So the inability of the United States to manage its political affairs at this point shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, but I think that’s the lesson, also, about the question of addressing Saudi fighters in Iraq, is that the U.S. has been disinterested, more inclined to talk about Iran and the regional threat that Iran allegedly represents than the details on the ground.

AMY GOODMAN: Toby Jones, can you talk about the prisoners who have just been released from Guantanamo to Saudi Arabia, like Dossary and then the Lackawanna Six, the people upstate New York in Buffalo, the Yemenis who were arrested?

TOBY JONES: Well, I mean, the number of Saudis in detention in Guantanamo is decreasing steadily over time. They’re being repatriated, released back into Saudi custody. So that number is diminishing. What’s happening to those former detainees in Saudi Arabia is unclear. Some of them are being tried, others are being released into the care of their families. Their fates after that is unknown. That reflects more generally Saudi Arabia’s handling of the militant question more generally, in which it attempts to sort of regenerate or rescue militants from their radical ways.

With respect to Dossary’s trip to upstate New York, you know, my understanding is that he, according to The Washington Post, gave some rousing talks to audiences in Lackawanna, and, of course, we have six alleged members of al-Qaeda from New York who have been arrested and gained quite some notoriety. I can’t speak specifically to Dossary’s role in any of that. I’m not familiar with his personal experiences in the region, but I think that it shouldn’t be surprising that the detainees and others have traveled back and forth and globally to preach radical messages. That doesn’t necessarily indict him or any of the other detainees with specific acts of militancy or terrorism.

AMY GOODMAN: And Vice President Cheney going to Saudi Arabia, what is his connection with Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabia’s concerns in Iraq right now not wanting troops to be pulled out?

TOBY JONES: Well, Cheney, along with Bush — and, really, it must be said that the United States has maintained a close relationship with Saudi Arabia since the mid-1940s, so arguments that the Bush family represents some parallel to the House of Saud as a kind of a dynastic American political family are really wide of the mark. The United States has made very clear that it’s willing to protect its interests in the Persian Gulf, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, including with military force.

Cheney’s interest in pushing Saudi Arabia quietly — I mean, the fact that Cheney gets sent, as opposed to more high — somebody who’s willing to take a high-profile media position, indicates that the U.S. wants to push quietly behind the scenes, but is interested in pressuring the Saudis to deal seriously with both the question of the insurgency and how Saudi Arabia might be involved more productively in Iraq.

As for Saudi Arabia’s perspective, I think it understands that it faces a paradoxical dilemma in Iraq. On the one hand, it fear the rise and perhaps a rise to hegemonic power of a Shia-dominated Iraq. Whether Shia Iraq acts as a proxy for Iran or not, it threatens Saudi Arabia’s sense of hegemony in the Gulf. Secondarily, and contradictorily, it also fears instability in Iraq. So it would like to see the United States stay in Iraq in order to contain the insurgency as best as possible so that it doesn’t spill over Iraq’s borders and into the Gulf, but at the same time it sees the U.S. is strengthening Shia power in Iraq. So Saudi Arabia is struggling much like other powers are in figuring out how best to determine its policy there.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And how stable is the Saudi government itself, vis-à-vis its own population and its own domestic unrest? It has a significant Shia minority within Saudi Arabia itself, in addition to obviously a much more radicalized youth in its population.

TOBY JONES: I don’t think Saudi Arabia is poised to topple anytime soon. Of course, those could be famous last words, but Saudi Arabia has proven resilient. It’s very strong. It’s managed to crack down severely on its own domestic al-Qaeda threat. We might argue that it’s shipping fighters off so that it deflects pressure on itself. The royal family is mostly united at this point. There are future concerns about succession after King Abdullah passes. Sultan will take over, but there is no indication that they’ve resolved who will then be third in line to power, and that could open Saudi Arabia up to internal rivalries within the royal family.

As for Saudi Arabia’s Shia population, there are about 1.5 to two million Shias who reside mostly in the eastern province. The region is strategically sensitive because it’s where all of Saudi Arabia’s oil is. Most Saudi Shias have pursued a political line of accommodation and reconciliation since the early 1990s. They’ve sought to be included in the national political system. That hasn’t worked particularly well, but they’ve not radicalized significantly.

There should be a concern that there will be an Iraq effect on al-Qaeda’s strategic thinking more broadly outside of Iraq and that the anti-Shiism endemic in Iraq may spread, become a strategic approach that al-Qaeda adopts outside of Iraq. And that makes Shia communities in Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, like in Pakistan, vulnerable to future strikes.

AMY GOODMAN: Toby Jones, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Persian Gulf analyst with the International Crisis Group until last year, now completing a fellowship at Swarthmore College and will be teaching at Rutgers.

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