Iraq is hurtling towards disintegration, Saudis warn

The Saudi government yesterday warned that 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 with Associated Press published yesterday, and at a meeting on Thursday night with the US media, including the New York Times and the Washington Post. 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. Saudi Arabia sits on a council with other Iraqi neighbours - 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 October 15 and a general election in December. The US and Britain hope that the election will be a watershed.

The US response to his warnings was to predict an improvement after the referendum and the election. 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. 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 Ba'athist criminal", Guardian reports.

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