Iraq civil war could spread, say Saudis
Saudi Arabia issued a stark warning yesterday that Iraq was in the grip of civil war which threatened to "suck in" neighbouring countries.
On a day when at least 17 more people were killed across Iraq, Riyadh expressed alarm that events were spiralling out of control."Civil war is a war between civilians and there is already war between civilians," Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, said.
"The threat of break-up in Iraq is a huge problem for the countries of the region, especially if the fighting is on a sectarian basis. This type of fighting sucks in other countries."
Prince Saud's warning echoed comments by President Hosni Mubarak, of Egypt, a week ago and contrasted with the cautious optimism about Iraq's future often expressed by America and Britain.
Speaking at a British-Saudi conference, he was plainly at odds with his co-host, Jack Straw. The Foreign Secretary said: "I do not believe there is a civil war in Iraq. There is a high level of sectarian violence but also great restraint shown by Shia leaders".
Arab countries have expressed alarm at Iran's growing influence in Iraq, while the West has accused Syria of helping Sunni insurgents.
Saudi civilians are known to have volunteered to join the jihad or to have provided funds and, like many governments, Riyadh is worried about hardened fighters returning to stir violence in their own countries.
The disagreements between Britain and Saudi Arabia - including on the possibility of sanctions against Iran over its nuclear defiance - have not prevented the two countries from working to agree on a huge arms deal.
A complex series of contracts could mean the sale of up to 72 Eurofighter Typhoon jets to Saudi Arabia in return for billions of pounds and millions of barrels of oil.
The contracts would include the transfer of technology to Saudi Arabia, the assembly of some of the jets there, contracts for training and maintenance and the upgrading of its Tornado strike force.
The Eurofighter, which is built by a consortium of companies from Britain, Germany, Spain and Italy, appears to have beaten off stiff competition from the French Rafale fighter.
British officials were cautious about forecasting success but Prince Saud suggested that the agreement was sealed. He said: "It is a good deal for both countries. We have reached the time when we have to renew our equipment."
He said it was in all countries' interest for Saudi Arabia to be able to defend itself.
The deal, which has been under negotiation for several years, coincides with Iran's growing radicalism and repeated western accusations that it is seeking to build a nuclear bomb under the guise of developing peaceful nuclear technology.
The United Nations has given Teheran until the end of the month to halt its uranium enrichment programme.
Saudi Arabia is alarmed that the United States has pointedly refused to rule out the use of force to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities and that Iran has conducted high-profile naval exercises in the Gulf, where two-fifths of the world's oil is transported.
Prince Saud said the prospect of military action "is of great concern to us".
Referring to the possible imposition of sanctions against Iran, he said: "Sanctions hurt people, not governments."
Instead, he said there should be more intense political discussions with Teheran.