Breaking for the border
When foreign ministers of Iraq's neighbouring countries meet in Cairo next week, fear of further instability in the embattled nation will top their agenda, writes Salah Hemeid
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Smoke rises from the site of an explosion in the "Green Zone" in Baghdad, near the US and British embassies. The area was, until 28 June, the headquarters of the US occupation authorities
Leaders of the newly formed Iraqi interim government have stepped up criticism of their neighbours, accusing them of doing too little to help restore security and peace in their war-torn country. They even accused some of these neighbours of facilitating or turning a blind eye to religious militants who infiltrate Iraq with the aim of launching attacks against coalition troops and the newly formed Iraqi army.
The Iraqi leaders have not gone so far as to publicly name these countries, but privately consider Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran as the places from which most of the militants originate. They do admit, however, that their governments might not be directly involved.
Iraqi officials are now saying they want this infiltration issue -- which has already soured relations between Baghdad and some of its neighbours -- to top the agenda of the meeting which will take place between the foreign ministers of Turkey, Iran, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt on 21 July in Cairo.
According to Iraqi officials who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari will press his regional counterparts to adopt tougher measures to seal their borders with Iraq to address this problem. "We want our neighbours to demonstrate which side they are on in this 'war on terror'," one senior Iraqi official told the Weekly from Baghdad.
Zebari himself told the New York Times that his government wants countries in the region to show "mutual respect" by not getting involved in Iraq's internal affairs and by clamping down on any cross-border flow of foreign fighters or aid to the insurgency. All of Iraq's neighbours are interfering "in many ways" -- some more than others -- in the internal affairs of this country, Zebari said in an interview with the paper on Sunday.
To underscore the importance Iraq attaches to regional cooperation for restoring security and stability, Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi had been planning to visit some neighbouring countries to discuss the issue with their leaders. But he had to cancel his tour, apparently because the security situation had deteriorated further, and instead sent his deputy Barham Saleh to Damascus to discuss the issue with the Syrian leaders. After his meeting with President Bashar Assad, Saleh said that Syria and Iraq would set up a special security force to prevent foreign fighters infiltrating their shared border. He said Iraq and Syria "should join forces to prevent infiltration and boost the political process in Iraq".
While failing to disclose any details regarding the meeting in Damascus, Syrian officials have nevertheless repeatedly denied allegations that they are permitting foreign Islamist militants to enter Iraq from their territories to attack coalition forces. They also admitted that it was impossible to thoroughly police Syria's 600-kilometre border with Iraq.
Some of the blame for the rocky security situation in Iraq was apportioned to Iran after Iraqi police officials disclosed earlier this month that a number of Iranians in possession of explosives and weapons had been arrested recently in Baghdad and other towns. Although no operational connections have so far been established between Iran and saboteurs in Iraq, Iraqi officials have indicated that Al- Qaeda operatives in Iraq might have been receiving logistical support from some Iranian organisation, perhaps without the government's consent.
Even Jordan, which has been more supportive of efforts to rebuild the Iraqi army and its security forces, might have been lax in pinning down a small number of fighters coming through its porous borders with Iraq. The London-based Al-Hayat newspaper has revealed that many Jordanian militants have joined their fellow citizen, Abu Musab Al- Zarqawi, who is waging a war against the Americans in Iraq upon instruction from extremist clerics in mosques in Jordan. Amman, however, has said it is coordinating its security efforts with Iraq to stop the incursion of militants over the border.
The Iraqi government has also discovered that huge amounts of money are being funnelled from some Gulf states to groups of Iraqi Salafis -- extremely conservative Sunni Muslims.
Saudi Arabia, however, remains the major concern for the Iraqis. A large number of militant Saudis are believed to have crossed into Iraq, and some terrorism experts have said that Saudi radicals have been joining other Islamist militants in Iraq and attacking the new Iraqi police force and US troops. Recent statements from Saudi militants underline the Iraq connection. A cell which claimed responsibility last month for the beheading of Paul M Johnson -- a Lockheed Martin Corp employee kidnapped in Riyadh -- has referred to itself as the Falluja Brigade of a broader group known as "Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula". The leader of that cell, Abdul-Aziz Muqrin -- who was killed three weeks ago in a shoot-out with security forces -- suggested in a statement which appeared on the Internet that there was substantial crossover between the group in Saudi Arabia and foreign fighters in Iraq.
Another example of Saudi fighters coming home to roost emerged in late June, when Othman Al-Amri surrendered to Saudi officials under a recently declared amnesty programme. Al-Amri had been number 19 on the list of the kingdom's 26 most wanted terrorism suspects. His family told Saudi reporters that he spent much of last year in Iraq as part of the insurgency there. Saleh Al-Ofi, the apparent new leader of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, travelled to Afghanistan before 11 September 2001, and met with Bin Laden, according to interviews given by his family to Saudi reporters. More recently, he spent time in northern Iraq, but returned to Saudi Arabia after he was almost killed during the US invasion.
Like their compatriots in Iraq, cells operating in Saudi Arabia have repeatedly stated that their primary aim is to drive out all "infidels", which includes the 100,000 plus Western expatriates who help run the country's oil industry and whose military and technical support is crucial to the Saudi government. Iraqi officials also say that Saudi Arabia provides funds and weapons, though none of it has been linked directly to the government. Funds for terrorist organisations in Iraq are brought into the country over the Syrian border.
Although the border with Iraq is officially closed, many Saudi fighters are still finding their way back into the kingdom. Prince Saud Al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, told reporters in Jeddah last month that the kingdom would bring to justice not only those Saudis who were involved in attacks in Iraq, but also those who incite violence.
The Saudi government says it sealed its border with Iraq last year and it played down evidence that Saudi radicals have contributed to the insurgency there. But on Tuesday Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef acknowledged for the first time that Saudi fighters may have infiltrated neighbouring Iraq. Prince Nayef said the Saudi government had not been officially notified of the detention of any Saudis in Iraq. "Surely there are Saudis," he said, "but the number, and how [they got into Iraq] is not available to us now."
If Iraq's neighbours are to be responsible for security in the country, argue Iraqi officials, then participants at the Cairo meeting should heed Baghdad's call for full cooperation to end the cycle of violence, particularly the violence caused by foreign insurgents.
The fire that Al-Zarqawi and his non-Iraqi cohorts want to set in Iraq could easily spread to the whole region. In an interview in the New York Times Zebari told his neighbours, "You are making a mistake because it is in your interest to have a strong, prosperous, democratic Iraq." An unstable Iraq, he continued, will only incite unrest in other countries in the region.