Bush administration officials are voicing increasing anger at what they say has been Saudi Arabia’s counterproductive role in the Iraq war. They say that beyond regarding Mr. Maliki as an Iranian agent, the Saudis have offered financial support to Sunni groups in Iraq. Of an estimated 60 to 80 foreign fighters who enter Iraq each month, American military and intelligence officials say that nearly half are coming from Saudi Arabia and that the Saudis have not done enough to stem the flow.
One senior administration official says he has seen evidence that Saudi Arabia is providing financial support to opponents of Mr. Maliki. He declined to say whether that support was going to Sunni insurgents because, he said, “That would get into disagreements over who is an insurgent and who is not.”
Officials in Washington have long resisted blaming Saudi Arabia for the chaos and sectarian strife in Iraq, choosing instead to pin blame on Iran and Syria. Even now, military officials rarely talk publicly about the role of Saudi fighters among the insurgents in Iraq.
The accounts of American concerns came from interviews with several senior administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they believed that openly criticizing Saudi Arabia would further alienate the Saudi royal family at a time when the United States is still trying to enlist Saudi support for Mr. Maliki and the Iraqi government, and for other American foreign policy goals in the Middle East, including an Arab-Israeli peace plan.
The Bush administration’s frustration with the Saudi government has increased in recent months because it appears that Saudi Arabia has stepped up efforts to undermine the Maliki government and to pursue a different course in Iraq from what the administration has charted. Saudi Arabia has also stymied a number of other American foreign policy initiatives, including a hoped-for Saudi embrace of Israel.
Of course, the Saudi government has hardly masked its intention to prop up Sunni groups in Iraq and has for the past two years explicitly told senior Bush administration officials of the need to counterbalance the influence Iran has there. Last fall, King Abdullah warned Vice President Dick Cheney that Saudi Arabia might provide financial backing to Iraqi Sunnis in any war against Iraq’s Shiites if the United States pulled its troops out of Iraq, American and Arab diplomats said.
Several officials interviewed for this article said they believed that Saudi Arabia’s direct support to Sunni tribesmen increased this year as the Saudis lost faith in the Maliki government and felt they must bolster Sunni groups in the eventuality of a widespread civil war.
Saudi Arabia months ago made a pitch to enlist other Persian Gulf countries to take a direct role in supporting Sunni tribal groups in Iraq, said one former American ambassador with close ties to officials in the Middle East. The former ambassador, Edward W. Gnehm, who has served in Kuwait and Jordan, said that during a recent trip to the region he was told that Saudi Arabia had pressed other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council — which includes Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman — to give financial support to Sunnis in Iraq.
The American officials in Iraq also say that the majority of suicide bombers in Iraq are from Saudi Arabia and that about 40 percent of all foreign fighters are Saudi. Officials said that while most of the foreign fighters came to Iraq to become suicide bombers, others arrived as bomb makers, snipers, logisticians and financiers.
American military and intelligence officials have been critical of Saudi efforts to stanch the flow of fighters into Iraq, although they stress that the Saudi government does not endorse the idea of fighters from Saudi Arabia going to Iraq….
The Bush administration’s relationship with Saudi Arabia has deteriorated steadily since the United States invasion of Iraq, culminating in April when, bitingly, King Abdullah, during a speech before Arab heads of state in Riyadh, condemned the American invasion of Iraq as “an illegal foreign occupation.”
A month before that, King Abdullah effectively torpedoed a high-profile meeting between Israelis and Palestinians, planned by Ms. Rice, by brokering a power-sharing agreement between the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and the militant Islamist group Hamas that did not require Hamas to recognize Israel. While that agreement eventually fell apart, the Bush administration, on both occasions, was caught off guard and became infuriated.
But Saudi officials have not been too happy with President Bush, either, and the plummeting of America’s image in the Muslim world has led King Abdullah to strive to set a more independent course.