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Saudi government publicly opposed, privately supportive of U.S. war on Iraq

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia—The Saudi Arabian government's actions belie its words.

While saying publicly that it will not help the United States in a war with Saddam Hussein, the Saudi monarchy is quietly giving Washington virtually everything it wants.

The Saudi regime's awkward denials that hundreds, if not thousands, of U.S. special forces troops are gathering inside the country's border with Iraq have underscored the excruciating dilemma that Saudi leaders face because of President Bush's determination to go to war.

Unlike in 1991, when Iraqi Scud missiles fell on this capital city, today residents express few, if any, fears of physical harm. No Iraqi tanks are poised to threaten the Saudi oil fields.

But now, the Saudi royal family has a different, vaguer dread. It worries that the war could unleash uncontrollable forces, igniting anti-government emotion, further complicating the Israeli-Arab dispute and even leading to the establishment of a Shi'ia Muslim mini-state inside Iraq's territory, officials, diplomats and businessmen say.

The monarchy, custodians of Islam's majority Sunni tradition, is torn between a public almost unanimously opposed to U.S. invasion of Iraq and a desire not to further poison post-Sept. 11 relations with its chief protector, the United States, where many recall that 15 of the 19 terrorists were Saudis.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal denied over the weekend that Saudi Arabia was helping the U.S. war effort.

"The kingdom does not and will not approve the use of its land for aggression against any Arab and Islamic country, including Iraq," Saud said.

In fact, diplomats say, Saudi Arabia will allow the U.S.-Saudi Prince Sultan Air Base to run the air war over Iraq, and has acquiesced to air surveillance missions and command and control operations.

"When war happens, jaws will drop," said one Middle East diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The public-private split in Saudi policy was graphically illustrated this weekend when a Saudi dissident group in London reported that the United States has deployed as many as 9,000 troops on Saudi territory near the Iraqi border, including at a base in Arar.

Many of the troops are said to conduct special operations.

It soon emerged that Arar's airport had been closed to the public.

Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan said late Saturday that the airport had been closed for the safety of local residents. He also suggested that it would be used for humanitarian aid flights for Iraqi refugees expected along the border area once war breaks out.

"We are on the verge of war and the situation is different from what it was in 1991," Prince Sultan said. "There's no secret U.S. bases and we closed the airport for humanitarian reasons." He implied that any U.S. troop presence was there only for humanitarian missions.

But other Middle East officials confirmed recently that hosting special operations forces is one of the things that Washington requested and Saudi Arabia agreed to.

The shifting explanations also may point to a fierce struggle within the Saudi royal family over foreign and domestic policy, pitting de facto leader Crown Prince Abdullah against Prince Sultan and Interior Minister Prince Nayef, who are more leery of Washington, several Saudis said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the subject's sensitivity.

The Saudis appear to have decided, after much debate, that since they cannot stop the war, giving strong backing to Washington is the best way to ensure that the conflict is over quickly. That is what they want most of all.

They appear to have fallen back on an old Bedouin strategy in dealing with trouble on the borders: buy it off, in hope it eventually will go away.

"If you don't support it, you make it more complicated and the possibility for disaster multiplies," said one diplomat.

Saudis have little love for Saddam, who leads a secular Arab republic, brutalizes his people and rained Scud missiles on their country 12 years ago, while threatening to push his army beyond Kuwait into Saudi Arabia. There were a few brief Iraqi incursions.

In an interview published Sunday, Foreign Minister Saud called again for Saddam to step aside to avoid war.

While they wouldn't mind seeing Saddam gone, Saudis say their real fear is that he won't fall easily and Iraq won't be pacified quickly, despite what U.S. hawks predict. The longer a war goes on, with high Iraqi civilian casualties and a long U.S. military occupation, the more potential for political unrest in the Saudi kingdom and beyond.

Almost without exception, Saudi officials point out Iraq's long history of violence, beginning long before Saddam, and the difficulty of keeping the country's Sunni, Shi'ia, Kurds, Turkomen and others together in one nation.

One official compactly summed up the kingdom's schizophrenic views on a war with Iraq.

"This could be God's gift to the Iraqi people," he said, or, "This could be the biggest mistake."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.