WASHINGTON — Saudi nationals fighting American forces in Iraq have grown in numbers significantly in recent months, and are now believed to constitute a majority in the swelling ranks of foreign Islamic insurgents in Iraq — and the majority of suicide bombers in Iraq, according to the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Returning from a visit to Iraq, where he received intelligence briefings from senior American officers, Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware told the Forward that the infiltration of Saudis into Iraq creates a problem for the Bush administration with the Saudi authorities. “Everyone is worried about the number of jihadists coming out of Saudi Arabia,” Biden said, “and the failure or inability” of the Saudi government to stop “in a real way, the support — either by manpower or by money — for jihadists coming out of there.”
Biden, citing briefings he had with Marine and Army generals in Iraq during a visit earlier this month, said that the makeup of the insurgency there is changing. Although most of the insurgents still are homegrown Iraqi nationals — between 80% and 90% according to some rough estimates — “now, the mix is increasingly more Islamists crossing the border,” Biden said. “And a lot of them are Saudis. It presents a different profile.”
That profile, the Senator said, makes the insurgency harder for America and its allies to confront. Driven by religious zeal, the jihadists typically are more highly motivated than Iraqi insurgents, more often willing to engage in suicide attacks, more militarily sophisticated and less likely to be reasoned with, Biden told a small group of reporters last week.
Relying on unclassified sources, independent experts have told reporters in recent weeks that they see evidence of the growing prominence of Saudi nationals in Iraq’s insurgency, but Biden’s comments are the first confirmation of such reports, based on U.S. military intelligence.
Vice President Dick Cheney two weeks ago told CNN talk show host Larry King that the insurgency in Iraq is “in the last throes.” According to Biden, reports from America’s top military commanders in Iraq indicate the opposite. Marine and Army generals told Biden that the increase in the proportion of foreign jihadists in the makeup of the insurgency does not mean a decrease in the numbers of Iraqi nationals who are joining the ranks of the insurgents. “It’s all growing,” he said. However, he stressed that “a lot of these folks are Saudis, in disproportionate numbers.”
Although American commanders in Iraq did not cite numbers, Biden added, they said that the numbers of foreign jihadists “have significantly increased” and are estimated “in the hundreds and low thousands.” They are “mostly Saudi, Syrian and from the Gulf countries,” Biden said.
American officers are debating reports about hundreds of Iranian suicide bombers who allegedly have also joined the insurgency recently, he said.
News of the increasing role of Saudis among the anti-American fighters in Iraq is likely to reignite congressional fury, especially among Democrats. Capitol Hill Democrats have blasted the Bush administration repeatedly since the attacks of September 11, 2001, for not pressing the Saudi government more vehemently for a crackdown on supporters of the anti-American jihadist movement.
“This serves as another example of the fact that Saudi Arabia still has not shut down the exportation of terror as well as they need to,” Florida Democrat Robert Wexler told the Forward. “Part of the frustration that Democrats have is not only with the Saudis and their behavior but the failure of President Bush to confront Saudi Arabia in an adequate fashion on such issues.”
Experts say there is not much the Saudi authorities can do to stop jihadists from leaving Saudi Arabia for Iraq. Most Saudis who go to fight in Iraq enter through Syria, not via the 426-mile-long Saudi-Iraqi border. The desert border area is closer to Shiite communities in southern Iraq than to the Saudis’ fellow Sunnis in central Iraq. “When you come in through Syria you are right in the heart of the Sunni area. Just a few miles inside you can get into Sunni urban areas,” said Thomas X. Hammes, a counterinsurgency expert with the U.S. Marines, whose book “The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century,” prescribes strategies for fighting urban-guerrilla insurgencies.
The Saudi authorities are trying to block the trickle of jihadists crossing the border into Iraq, but that is easier said than done, Hammes said. “People always talk about sealing these borders,” he said. “I would first want to see the United States prove its capability to close the Mexican-U.S. border.”
What the Saudi government could do, some experts say, is tone down the anti-American vitriol of Saudi clerics. “The Saudis are being hypocritical,” said Reuven Paz, an Israeli expert on militant Islam who has been studying the collective profile of the anti-American jihadists in Iraq. “On the one hand, the Saudis presume to be America’s allies in the war on terrorism. On the other hand, their religious establishment is encouraging holy war against the Americans in Iraq, and that is something the Saudi authorities could confront, if they wanted to.”
The Saudi government has taken some steps to fight terrorism in recent months, but it is still shying away from confronting an openly anti-American religious establishment in the kingdom, many experts say.
Calls to the Saudi embassy in Washington for comment were not returned.
Paz said that he has found a strong Saudi presence in jihadist Web sites he has studied. According to these sites, most of the suicide bombers in Iraq are Saudis, and many Saudis seem to support their actions. “There certainly is in Saudi Arabia a cult of admiration for the jihadist insurgents,” Paz said, “and it’s similar to the suicide bomber cult we know from the West Bank and Gaza.”
To make things worse, Paz said, Iraq is attracting not only more Saudis but also a growing number of jihadists from throughout the Arab world. “We see people from the Gulf, from Syria and Jordan and North Africa,” said Paz. “They are older — typically in their late 20s or 30s — and better educated than the Palestinian suicide bombers. They often are married, with children, and well off. You have to ask yourself what would drive a married Moroccan man, a family man, who owns a restaurant to leave his family and business behind and go to Iraq to kill himself in a car bombing, using a car that he bought there with his own money.”
For Islamic militants worldwide, Paz said, America’s occupation of Iraq serves as a magnetic force that far exceeds the attraction of jihadists from around the world to fight Russia’s occupation forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s. “It’s like Afghanistan all over again — only worse,” Paz said. “Unlike guerrillas in Afghanistan, foreign fighters in Iraq are targeting Iraqi citizens. And they are relentless.”
According to official American military figures, in recent weeks insurgents have been carrying out an average of more than 70 attacks every day — up from 30 to 40 a day in February. Since Iraq’s new government was announced April 28, insurgents have carried out at least 122 car bombings and seven suicide bombings in which bombers strapped explosives to their bodies, killing more than 900 people, according to The Associated Press. As of June 14, at least 1,701 American forces had been killed since the Iraq war began in March 2003. Of them, 1,297 were killed in hostile action, mostly by insurgents.
Insurgents are believed to have killed as many as 12,000 Iraqi civilians in the past 18 months, according to Iraqi government statistics.
As foreigners play a more prominent role in the insurgency, a political solution for Iraq is becoming more difficult to achieve, said Kenneth Katzman, senior analyst on Persian Gulf affairs with the Congressional Research Service. “You can make a deal with the Iraqis,” Katzman said. “There may be some negotiations that could be done with the Iraqis who might agree to stop fighting. That’s not the case with the foreigners, and that is going to make it more difficult to find a solution.”