BAGHDAD, IRAQ -- Although Bush administration officials frequently have lashed out at Syria and Iran for helping the insurgents and militias who attack U.S. troops and civilians here, the largest number of foreign fighters and suicide bombers in Iraq come from a third next-door neighbor, Saudi Arabia, according to a senior U.S. military officer and Iraqi lawmakers.
The U.S. military believes 45 percent of all foreign militants are Saudi, another 15 percent are from Syria and Lebanon and 10 percent from North Africa, according to official U.S. military figures released to the Los Angeles Times by the officer.
Nearly half the 135 foreigners held in U.S. detention facilities in Iraq are Saudi.
Saudi fighters are thought to have carried out more suicide bombings than any other nationality, said the senior American military officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the subject's sensitivity for the U.S. government.
He added that 50 percent of all Saudi fighters here are suicide bombers. In the last six months, such bombings have killed or injured 4,000 Iraqis.
The situation has left the American military in the awkward position of facing an enemy whose top source of fighters is a key regional ally that at best has not been able to prevent its citizens from undertaking bloody attacks in Iraq, and at worst shares complicity in sending jihadists to commit attacks against U.S. forces, civilians and Iraq's Shiite Muslim-led government.
The situation also shows the tangled web of alliances and enemies that often swirl below the surface of political relationships between Muslim nations and the U.S. government.
In the 1980s, the Saudi intelligence service sponsored Sunni Muslim jihadists for the U.S.-backed fight against the then-Soviet Union in Afghanistan. At the time, Saudi intelligence cultivated Osama bin Laden, the future leader of al-Qaida, who would one day pose a threat to the Saudi royal family and mastermind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America. Indeed, Saudi Arabia has long provided a good portion of the money and manpower for al-Qaida and was the home of 15 of the 19 skyjackers in the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.
Now, the threat of suicide attacks by a Sunni Muslim insurgent group that calls itself al-Qaida in Iraq is the greatest short-term threat to Iraq's security, U.S. military spokesman Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner warned last Wednesday.
The group, one of several Sunni Muslim insurgent groups, relies on foreigners to carry out its lethal bomb attacks because Iraqis are less likely to undertake such strikes, which the movement hopes will provoke sectarian violence, Bergner said.
The extent of the connection between the group in Iraq and Bin Laden's network, based along the Afghan-Pakistani frontier, is unclear.
The Saudi government does not dispute that some of its youth are ending up as suicide bombers in Iraq, but says it has done everything it currently can to stop the bloodshed. The bombingsmainly target Iraq's Shiite majority whom Sunni extremists consider unbelievers.
"Saudis are actually being misused. Someone is helping them come to Iraq, someone is helping them inside Iraq, someone is recruiting them to be suicide bombers. We have no idea who these people are. We aren't getting any formal information from the Iraqi government," said Gen. Mansour Al-Turki, spokesman for the Saudi interior ministry.
"If we get good feedback from the Iraqi government about Saudis being arrested in Iraq, probably we can help."
Defenders of Saudi Arabia also point to the fact that its government has sought to control its border with Iraq and has fought a bruising domestic war against al-Qaida since Sept. 11.
"To suggest they've done nothing to stem the flow of people into Iraq is wrong," said a U.S. intelligence official in Washington, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Others contend Saudi Arabia is allowing fighters, sympathetic to al-Qaida, to go to Iraq through Syria, rather than stir havoc at home.
Iraqi parliament member Sami Askari, an adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, accused Saudi officials of a deliberate policy to sow chaos in Shiite-led Baghdad.
By Ned Parker
Los Angeles Times