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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 December 2006, 15:11 GMT
Saudis 'may back' Iraq's Sunnis
By Jonathan Marcus
BBC diplomatic correspondent

King Abdullah and Dick Cheney
Saudi Arabia does not want the US to leave Iraq too soon
Saudi Arabia has warned the US it might provide financial backing to Iraq's Sunnis if full-scale fighting erupted in Iraq after a US withdrawal.

The message was conveyed to US Vice-President Dick Cheney two weeks ago when he visited Riyadh, according to a report in the New York Times newspaper.

This is a time for reappraisal in Washington. There is going to be no full-scale shift in policy towards Iraq.

But there could be important changes of emphasis when President George Bush announces his conclusions early in 2007 in the wake of the Iraq Study Group's report and the findings of three internal Administration reviews.

So the time to speak up is now.

And if the US press reports are true, this is just what the Saudi government has been doing.

It amounts to a pretty blunt word in the ear of their closest friend in Washington - Vice President Dick Cheney.

Shia rise

Saudi Arabia is watching events in its neighbourhood warily.

The chaos in Iraq and the rise of Shia Iran are causing consternation in Riyadh.

There seems to be a growing fear that the US may succumb to domestic pressure and speed up the timetable for a withdrawal of its forces from Iraq.

The Saudis do not want to see any precipitate US departure.

And their warning that they might be forced to support Iraq's Sunni population against the Shia majority is to be seen in this light.

This is of course a hypothetical situation. But it is not an impossible one.

Signals that this is the view of at least one prominent faction in Saudi Arabia have been clear for some weeks.

Indeed the Saudis are struggling to come to terms with the outcome of the Iraq war which has fundamentally changed the regional power-balance.

This is why they have dusted off their peace plan to resolve the Israel-Palestine problem.

And it is also why they have welcomed wider efforts in the Gulf to pursue what for now would be a civil nuclear research programme.




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