Will Media Report the Real Civil War Risk of Iraq Withdrawal?

On November 29, my NewsBusters op-ed considered the violent downside of withdrawing American troops from Iraq, and how it could lead to a real civil war between Sunni and Shia from all the Muslim nations in the region. It turns out that on the same day, an advisor to the Saudi government, Nawaf Obaid, wrote his own op-ed published by the Washington Post wherein he cautioned that if U.S. troops pull out of Iraq, “one of the first consequences will be massive Saudi intervention to stop Iranian-backed Shiite militias from butchering Iraqi Sunnis.”

Sadly, this piece received little media focus as the press pushed harder and harder for a full-scale retreat.

Regardless of the media’s disinterest, Obaid was quite blunt: “One hopes [President Bush] won't make the same mistake again by ignoring the counsel of Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, Prince Turki al-Faisal, who said in a speech last month that ‘since America came into Iraq uninvited, it should not leave Iraq uninvited.’" He ominously continued (emphasis mine throughout):

Over the past year, a chorus of voices has called for Saudi Arabia to protect the Sunni community in Iraq and thwart Iranian influence there. Senior Iraqi tribal and religious figures, along with the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and other Arab and Muslim countries, have petitioned the Saudi leadership to provide Iraqi Sunnis with weapons and financial support. Moreover, domestic pressure to intervene is intense. Major Saudi tribal confederations, which have extremely close historical and communal ties with their counterparts in Iraq, are demanding action. They are supported by a new generation of Saudi royals in strategic government positions who are eager to see the kingdom play a more muscular role in the region.

One can understand why the press wouldn’t want such an opinion widely disseminated. Obaid continued:

Because King Abdullah has been working to minimize sectarian tensions in Iraq and reconcile Sunni and Shiite communities, because he gave President Bush his word that he wouldn't meddle in Iraq (and because it would be impossible to ensure that Saudi-funded militias wouldn't attack U.S. troops), these requests have all been refused. They will, however, be heeded if American troops begin a phased withdrawal from Iraq. As the economic powerhouse of the Middle East, the birthplace of Islam and the de facto leader of the world's Sunni community (which comprises 85 percent of all Muslims), Saudi Arabia has both the means and the religious responsibility to intervene.

And continued:

Just a few months ago it was unthinkable that President Bush would prematurely withdraw a significant number of American troops from Iraq. But it seems possible today, and therefore the Saudi leadership is preparing to substantially revise its Iraq policy. Options now include providing Sunni military leaders (primarily ex-Baathist members of the former Iraqi officer corps, who make up the backbone of the insurgency) with the same types of assistance -- funding, arms and logistical support -- that Iran has been giving to Shiite armed groups for years.

Didn’t hear about any of this? Wonder why? Alas, there was more:

Another possibility includes the establishment of new Sunni brigades to combat the Iranian-backed militias. Finally, Abdullah may decide to strangle Iranian funding of the militias through oil policy. If Saudi Arabia boosted production and cut the price of oil in half, the kingdom could still finance its current spending. But it would be devastating to Iran, which is facing economic difficulties even with today's high prices. The result would be to limit Tehran's ability to continue funneling hundreds of millions each year to Shiite militias in Iraq and elsewhere.

And, much as my op-ed indicated, Obaid envisioned a significantly more violent Iraq without America there:

Both the Sunni insurgents and the Shiite death squads are to blame for the current bloodshed in Iraq. But while both sides share responsibility, Iraqi Shiites don't run the risk of being exterminated in a civil war, which the Sunnis clearly do. Since approximately 65 percent of Iraq's population is Shiite, the Sunni Arabs, who make up a mere 15 to 20 percent, would have a hard time surviving any full-blown ethnic cleansing campaign.

What's clear is that the Iraqi government won't be able to protect the Sunnis from Iranian-backed militias if American troops leave. Its army and police cannot be relied on to do so, as tens of thousands of Shiite militiamen have infiltrated their ranks. Worse, Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, cannot do anything about this, because he depends on the backing of two major leaders of Shiite forces.

And continued:

There is reason to believe that the Bush administration, despite domestic pressure, will heed Saudi Arabia's advice. Vice President Cheney's visit to Riyadh last week to discuss the situation (there were no other stops on his marathon journey) underlines the preeminence of Saudi Arabia in the region and its importance to U.S. strategy in Iraq. But if a phased troop withdrawal does begin, the violence will escalate dramatically.

In this case, remaining on the sidelines would be unacceptable to Saudi Arabia. To turn a blind eye to the massacre of Iraqi Sunnis would be to abandon the principles upon which the kingdom was founded. It would undermine Saudi Arabia's credibility in the Sunni world and would be a capitulation to Iran's militarist actions in the region.

To be sure, Saudi engagement in Iraq carries great risks -- it could spark a regional war. So be it: The consequences of inaction are far worse.

Scary stuff indeed. To be fair, though this has garnered little media attention, there has been a handful of articles published on this subject, including the following by the Washington Times on December 5:

The Saudi ambassador canceled a contract with a government adviser who predicted Saudi Arabia might intervene in Iraq to protect the Sunni Muslim minority that would be vastly outnumbered by Shi'ite Muslims in a full-scale civil war.

Ambassador Prince Turki al-Faisal said Nawaf Obaid was a consultant to the Saudi Embassy until he wrote an article last week in The Washington Post, claiming that the Saudi government was considering providing funding, arms and logistical support to Sunni militias.

Prince Turki told CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Sunday that he canceled the contract to distance the government from Mr. Obaid, who is also an adjunct fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. Although Mr. Obaid wrote that he was expressing his personal views, many observers thought he had the approval of the Saudi government to leak the information as a warning to brutal Shi'ite militias that mount daily attacks against Sunnis and to the Iranian government that funds the militias.
Sunnis, who also wage daily war against Shi'ites, ignited the wave of violence by blowing up a revered Shi'ite mosque in February. 

"Mr. Obaid did some consultancy work for the embassy," Prince Turki said. "And in order to [show], as he explained in his article, that he was expressing his views on these issues and to make sure that nobody misunderstands where Saudi Arabia and the embassy stand on that issue, we terminated our consultancy work with him."

Whether Obaid was indeed just expressing his opinion or not will become apparent over time, even though it does seem more logical that his contract was canceled because he hit the nail right on the head. After all, why fire him if his opinion was way off base.

Regardless, the bigger issue as we move forward through the process of identifying viable options in Iraq continues to be an honest assessment presented by our media of the real consequences associated with each option. As the press clearly want an immediate withdrawal, will they inform Americans of the possible bloody end result that Obaid warns of? Or, will this be kept close to the vest so that those who agree with retreat will not be diswayed by the obvious humanitarian concerns?

Such will only be answered in the fullness of time.

Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard, Associate Editor of NewsBusters, passed away in March of 2014.