Saudi Arabia urges US to change course in Iraq

DUBAI (Reuters) — Saudi Arabia has urged the United States to change course in Iraq and warned against the break-up of the country along ethnic or religious lines amid growing sectarian violence, a newspaper said on Saturday.

“The coalition forces in Iraq should review the aims of their presence and the strategy of remaining there because the question that should be asked is: What have these forces achieved since their arrival on Iraqi land?” Crown Prince Sultan Ben Abdul-Aziz told the London-based Asharq Al Awsat newspaper.

“Has the strategy that these forces are using achieved anything positive? Are there strategic alternatives that should be considered as the existing situation in Iraq deteriorates?” The comments come as President George W. Bush prepares to announce a shift in Iraq policy next week.

On Friday, Bush shuffled the US military commanders responsible for Iraq, but Democrats, who now control Congress, are resisting a proposal to raise troop levels in Iraq.

Bush may propose a temporary increase of up to 20,000 troops to try to stabilise a country gripped by sectarian violence bordering on civil war.

Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, a key US ally in the region, is concerned that such violence could lead to the disintegration of Iraq into Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish regions.

“We have warned and continue to warn against calls for the division of Iraq, which come up now and then, calling for sectarian rights or minority freedoms,” Prince Sultan said.

Prince Sultan also called on Iraqis to launch a national dialogue to end the bloodshed and, in a veiled swipe at Shiite Iran, urged Iraq’s neighbours to stop meddling in its affairs.

The Washington Times reported last month that a security report commissioned by the Saudi government said Iran had effectively created a Shiite “state within a state” in Iraq.

“There are a series of factors affecting the deterioration of the security and political situation in Iraq. Here, we call on some neighbouring countries to … stop backing sects and movements in Iraq,” Prince Sultan told the Saudi-owned paper.

The New York Times cited unnamed US officials and Arab diplomats in December as saying Riyadh would refrain from aiding the Sunni insurgency only as long as US forces remained in Iraq.

“The kingdom has not and will not interfere in Iraq’s domestic affairs, leaving room for its people to find a way out of the crisis they are living through,” Prince Sultan said.

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