Saudi king warns that a spark could ignite the Arab world

Published 11:41 pm Saturday, December 9, 2006

Saudi Arabia’s king warned Saturday that all of the Middle East is threatened by escalating conflicts around the region, from spiraling sectarian violence in Iraq to rising tensions in Lebanon to fighting among Palestinians.

“Our Arab region is surrounded by dangers,” King Abdullah said at the opening of a summit for leaders of the oil-rich Arab nations around the Persian Gulf. “It is like a keg of gunpowder waiting for a spark to explode.”

Palestinian factions are fighting each other, and Iraq is slipping into “the darkness of strife and mad struggle,” a danger that also looms over Lebanon’s diverse communities, he said in a speech before the leaders began a closed session.

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The two-day meeting of the six Gulf Cooperation Council nations is focusing on how to head off wider strife exploding from those conflicts or the nuclear standoff between a defiant Iran and the West.

The leaders of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman are expected to discuss a U.S. advisory panel’s recommendations on the Iraq war. The bipartisan Iraq Study Group urged the Bush administration to engage Syria and Iran in a diplomatic effort to stabilize Iraq.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal warned earlier this week that Iraq “poses a great challenge to the region, its security and its future” and called for “halting all forms of interference in Iraq,” an apparent reference to Syria and Iran.

Each has ties with key factions in Iraq: Iran with Shiite Muslim parties that dominate the U.S.-backed government and have militias blamed for much of the sectarian bloodshed, and Syria with Sunni Arabs, who are the main force in the insurgency. Both Iran and Syria deny supporting violence in Iraq.

Kuwaiti columnist Youssef al-Rashed expressed alarm Saturday that suggestions from the Iraq Study Group could lead to a too rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces, saying that could hurt Persian Gulf nations.

“If the United States is unable to manage the situation shrewdly, any sudden or premature pullout would result in a security vacuum that would affect us all,” al-Rashed wrote in the newspaper Al-Anba.

Kuwaitis are nervous that Iraq’s Sunni-Shiite bloodshed could spill over to their country, where Shiites make up 30 percent of the people. Similar concerns are shared by Saudi Arabia, which is up to 15 percent Shiite, and Bahrain, a Sunni-ruled island kingdom in the Persian Gulf with a Shiite majority.

Gulf countries also worry about the international standoff between Iran and the West over suspicions the Tehran regime is developing nuclear weapons in violation of treaty commitments and are pressing for sanctions. Iran insists its program is only for generating electricity and vows to continue defying a U.N. demand that it suspend uranium enrichment.

Leaders of the Arab nations around the gulf have publicly focused on safety issues involving Iran’s plan to start its first nuclear reactor late next year.

They are equally worried about a possible military clash pitting Iran against the United States and its ally Israel. The gulf states that are host to U.S. military bases — Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar — fear Iran could retaliate against them.

Iran’s top national security official, Ali Larijani, has urged the gulf Arab countries to evict the U.S. bases and join in a regional security pact with his government.

Qatari political analyst Mohammed al-Musfir called on the Arab leaders meeting in Riyadh to take a tougher stance on Iran and abandon the “very mild” statements usually issued at the end of their annual summits.

“They follow a policy of appeasement. … They have to issue an outright rejection of (Iran’s) nuclear armament,” he said.