Saudis plan fence across border with Iraq

DUBAI (AP) — Saudi Arabia is pushing ahead with plans to build a fence along its entire 900-kilometre border with Iraq to prevent armed groups from entering the kingdom from the chaotic northern neighbour.

The barrier, which will likely take five to six years to complete, is part of a $12 billion package of measures including electronic sensors, bases and physical barriers to protect the oil-rich kingdom from external threats, said Nawaf Obaid, a security adviser to the Saudi government.

The ambitious project reflects not only concern over such threats but also growing alarm over the situation in Iraq, where US forces are struggling to prevent Sunni-Shiite violence from escalating to full-scale civil war.

All of Iraq’s neighbours, including the Saudis, fear that violence could spill over the borders and threaten their own security.

For the Saudis, those threats could come from Saudi fighters returning home to continue the struggle against the pro-US monarchy or from Shiite extremists seeking to stir up trouble among the country’s Shiite minority.

Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has spent about $1.8 billion to shore up its defences along the border with Iraq.

US and Iraqi officials have long complained about Saudi extremists crossing into Iraq — mostly through Syria — to join the battle against American and coalition forces.

However, Obaid said improvements in border surveillance had sharply reduced the traffic heading north.

“More importantly, the main issue is to seal the border on the Iraqi side since there has been almost no [Iraqi security] presence since the US invasion,” Obaid said.

In addition to political extremists, the Saudis want to prevent drug smugglers, weapon dealers and illegal migrants from using Iraq as an avenue into Saudi Arabia, Obaid said.

US officials in Baghdad declined to comment on the Saudi plan, saying it was a bilateral matter between the two governments.

The spokesman for Iraq’s interior ministry, Brig. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, said Iraqi officials had heard of the Saudi plans to improve border security “and we thank them for it.” “If the Saudis want to build border defences to stop the infiltration of terrorists, they can do that to protect their borders,” he said.

Obaid said contracts for work on the fence, expected to cost about $500 million, have not been awarded and work is not expected to begin before next year.

Although the government in Riyadh has not released complete details of its plans, security experts familiar with the project said it would include electronic sensors and ultraviolet cameras capable of detecting any attempt to breach the fence.

The fence will not be electrified, but it will have sensors capable to alerting security forces if anyone tries to cut through the links, the experts said on condition of anonymity because they are not authorised to speak about the project to media.

The Middle East Economic Digest, a regional news magazine, reported this month that the Iraq portion would contain a double-lined fence with 135 electronically controlled gates, fence-mounted ultraviolet intruder detection sensors, buried radio detection sensors, and concertina razor wire along the entire, mostly desert frontier.

US officials said last April that Saudis were the top five nationalities among foreign fighters captured by coalition forces in Iraq.

Twenty-three Saudis were arrested in Iraq between September 2005 and April, compared with 51 Syrians and 38 Egyptians, US officials said earlier this year.

Obaid said the Saudi government was more concerned with infiltration into its own territory.

Al Qaeda’s Saudi-born leader, Osama Ben Laden, has made no secret of his opposition to the Saudi monarchy because of its ties to the Americans.

The Saudis are especially sensitive to the possibility of unrest among the country’s Shiite minority because it is centred in the oil-producing east of the country.

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