BAGHDAD – Although Bush administration officials have frequently lashed out at Syria and Iran for helping the insurgents and militias who attack U.S. troops and civilians here, the largest number of foreign fighters and suicide bombers in Iraq come from a third next-door neighbor, Saudi Arabia, according to a senior U.S. military officer and Iraqi lawmakers.
The U.S. military believes 45 percent of all foreign militants are Saudi, another 15 percent are from Syria and Lebanon and 10 percent from North Africa, according to official U.S. military figures released to the Los Angeles Times by the officer. Nearly half of the 135 foreigners currently held in U.S. detention facilities in Iraq are Saudi.
Saudi fighters are thought to have carried out more suicide bombings than any other nationality, said the senior American military officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the subject’s sensitivity for the U.S. government. It is apparently the first time a U.S. official has given such a breakdown on the pivotal role played by Saudi nationals in Iraq’s Sunni Arab insurgency.
He added that 50 percent of all Saudi fighters here are suicide bombers. In the last six months, such bombings have killed or injured 4,000 Iraqis. The situation has left the American military in the awkward position of facing an enemy whose top source of fighters is a key regional 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 jihadists to commit attacks against U.S. forces, civilians and Iraq’s Shiite Muslim-led government.
The situation also casts a spotlight on the tangled web of alliances and enemies that often swirls just below the surface in the political relationships between Muslim nations and with the U.S. government.
In the 1980s, the Saudi intelligence service sponsored Sunni Muslim jihadists for the U.S.-backed fight against the then-Soviet Union in Afghanistan. At the time, Saudi intelligence cultivated Osama bin Laden, the future leader of al-Qaida, who would one day pose a threat to the Saudi royal family and mastermind the Sept. 11 attacks on America. Indeed, Saudi Arabia has long provided a good portion of the money and manpower for al-Qaida and was the home of 15 of the 19 skyjackers in the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.
Now, the threat of suicide attacks by a Sunni Muslim insurgent group that calls itself al-Qaida in Iraq is the greatest short-term threat to Iraq’s security, U.S. military spokesman Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner warned last Wednesday.
The group, one of several Sunni Muslim insurgent groups fighting in Baghdad and beyond, relies on foreigners to carry out its lethal bomb attacks because Iraqis are less likely to undertake such strikes, which the movement hopes will provoke sectarian violence, Bergner said. The extent of the connection between the group in Iraq and bin Laden’s network, based along the Afghan-Pakistani frontier, is unclear.