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U.N. ambassador slams U.S. arms sales

- The Washington Times - Friday, August 3, 2007

NEW YORK — Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations criticized a Bush administration plan to sell heavy military equipment and weapons to Israel and select Arab countries yesterday, saying the sale would only increase regional support for Iran.

"This reminds me of when they armed Saddam to the teeth until 1980, and he started the war [with Iran] and it was devastating for the region, for everybody," said Ambassador Hamid al-Bayati in an interview. He said the same weapons later were used to invade Kuwait and in fighting U.S. and international troops.

The arms package, announced this week and valued at more than $60 billion, was widely seen as a bid to bolster Israel and moderate Arab states that feel threatened by the growing power of Iran and its allies.

But Mr. al-Bayati said a number of Arab and Muslim envoysfear the Arab public will see it as an attempt to divide Muslims against each other and turn their sympathies toward Tehran.

The sale also bolsters mainly Sunni-led governments, many of which are suspicious of the Shi'ite-led administration that Mr. al-Bayati represents. Shi"ite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia both are reported to be channeling aid and volunteers to rival Iraqi militias.

Despite the tensions, Saudi Arabia recently proposed to open a Baghdad embassy for the first time since the ouster of dictator Saddam Hussein, a step that Mr. al-Bayati welcomed yesterday.

"An embassy will allow them to see what is really going on in Iraq, to taste it, to talk directly to people," he said. Of the nearly 50 foreign embassies in Baghdad, he said, not a single Arab state is represented by a full-fledged ambassador.

But the ambassador criticized Saudi Arabia over its release of two letters purportedly written by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and intercepted by the Saudis.

The first letter, dated Jan. 14, warned militant cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to hide a dozen of his Mahdi Army militia leaders before the U.S. surge; the second, dated March 2 and addressed to Iran, warned that the Americans were planning to go after members of Tehran's elite Al Quds Force in Iraq.

The Bush administration and the al-Maliki government both have dismissed the letters as fakes, saying the signatures are identical and therefore can only be photocopies. But the Saudis continue to treat them as real, citing them as evidence that the Baghdad government backs anti-Sunni militias.

"I don't understand how they can keep saying they think these letters are authentic," said Mr. al-Bayati, who dismissed them as the work of insurgents.

Nevertheless, he said, "Saudi Arabia definitely can play a positive role in Iraq," noting that the kingdom already is taking steps to foster peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

"It has the holiest places in the world for Muslims, they have oil money, and they can influence with their money. Now they are playing a political role, although sometimes it is not so clear what they are doing," he said.

Nail al-Jubeir, a spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington, acknowledged having a conversation with the Iraqi government about the two letters but refused to characterize the discussions.

He also confirmed that Saudi Arabian citizens are among those who have been arrested in Iraq as foreign fighters or terrorists.

"They are not coming from the Saudi Arabian border," Mr. al-Jubeir said, insisting that his government is as concerned as is that of Iraq. "We are doing everything we can to find the recruiters and apprehend them."

He said young men have been tricked into going to Iraq, where they have been trafficked by insurgents or criminal gangs.

"This is not good for us or any other country in the region," he said. "It is the training they receive [in Iraq] that we are worried about."