- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 31, 2003

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — There have been signs for months, despite official denials, that Saudi extremists are traveling to Iraq to take on U.S.-led forces, Saudi journalists who monitor Islamic militancy say.

Internet memorials to those who died fighting American soldiers continue to pop up, they say, and Saudis quietly swap tales said to be from the front lines.

Many of the men going to Iraq previously fought in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Bosnia, and were experts on guerrilla warfare, said Abdullah Bjad al-Otaibi, who once counted himself among the extremists and now writes about them for Saudi newspapers.

Islamic extremists from Saudi Arabia are “looking to die, and the quickest way to heaven, as far as they’re concerned, is fighting infidels, in this case represented by the U.S. forces in Iraq,” Mr. al-Otaibi said. “Nothing inflames their emotions like the presence of U.S. troops in a Muslim country. The presence of the troops in Iraq, especially with the instability there, is like a magnet to them.”

Mr. Al-Otaibi said he doesn’t believe there are more than 200 Saudis fighting in Iraq, but devotion to their cause could make them a potent force.

Saudi officials, sensitive to any charges that extremism emanates from the kingdom, categorically have dismissed the possibility their citizens are fighting in Iraq. In an interview with the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat published yesterday, Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef called such claims “baseless.”

In Washington last week, Saudi foreign policy adviser Adel al-Jubeir challenged the Bush administration to prove suggestions from Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and others that some of those attacking U.S. troops in postwar Iraq were from Saudi Arabia.

“We have no evidence of Saudis crossing into Iraq, and we have received no evidence from the U.S. government,” Mr. al-Jubeir said.

Both Mr. al-Jubeir and Prince Nayef spoke before Iraqi police yesterday said at least two Saudis were among more than a dozen foreigners and Iraqis arrested in connection with the bombing Friday that killed at least 85 at Iraq’s holiest Shi’ite Muslim shrine.

An Iraqi investigator, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the Saudis were among those arrested who admitted connections to Saudi-born dissident Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terror network. Al Qaeda is a Sunni Muslim splinter group whose followers may have seen no contradiction in attacking a shrine holy to the minority Shi’ite Muslim sect.

The strict form of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism practiced in Saudi Arabia shows little tolerance for non-Wahhabi Sunnis and Shi’ites. In addition, the prominent Iraqi Shi’ite cleric who died in Friday’s bombing — Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim — had cooperated with the American occupation force. Extremists had threatened Arabs and Muslims who worked with the Americans.

U.S. officials have said several foreign fighters have been apprehended by U.S. troops in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq, and that papers found with them indicate they came into Iraq from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria. The officials said U.S. investigators were trying to determine their identities, origins and travel routes.

In recent months, Saudi fighters in Iraq reportedly have called friends back home and told them about successful operations in an effort to recruit more fighters.

If Saudis are being pulled toward Iraq out of religious fervor, they also may be pushed there by their government’s new stated policy of zero tolerance for militancy.

Since the May 12 suicide bombings of Western housing compounds in Riyadh killed 26 foreigners and Saudis along with nine Saudi attackers, Saudi Arabia has launched a major crackdown, setting up roadblocks in all major cities. More than 200 al Qaeda-linked terrorists have been arrested and more than a dozen killed in shootouts with security forces. An arsenal of weapons has been unearthed in Saudi Arabia.

Slipping across the border into Iraq offers an escape from the crackdown as well as a chance to fight the United States, but it is done quietly.

“American pressure on the kingdom and the fact that Saudi Arabia itself has suffered from militants has made it difficult for people to openly support the resistance in Iraq,” Al-Riyadh journalist Mansour al-Nogaidan said.

He said clerics and mainstream Saudi newspapers earlier had been more openly supportive of Saudis fighting in Iraq. Still, he said, the presence of Saudi fighters in Iraq is well-known among most Saudis.

“Friends have told me about relatives fighting in Iraq,” he said, adding he’d read a Web site notice last week about a young Saudi killed fighting in Iraq.

Khalid al-Ghannami, a writer and columnist specializing in extremists and Islamic issues, said two of his neighbors went to fight in Iraq. The younger brother, a teenager, was killed there and eulogized on a Web site as a martyr.

He said the borders between Saudi Arabia and Iraq are porous. Shepherds move freely between the two countries and volunteer fighters can do the same, he said.

U.S.-Saudi cooperation in the war against terrorism increased after the May 12 bombings in Riyadh. Earlier this month, the Saudi government agreed to let U.S. investigators form a joint task force to root out terrorist money from the Middle East kingdom, where 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers grew up.

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