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Gulf nations struggle with Iraq militant blowback

Thursday - 6/19/2014, 4:58am  ET

FILE - This April 28, 2014 file photo shows armed, masked antigovernment gunmen patrolling Fallujah, Iraq, after Al-Qaida-linked fighters and their allies seized the city months ago. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf petro-powerhouses encouraged a flow of cash to Sunni rebels in Syria for years. But now they face a worrying blowback as an al-Qaida breakaway group that benefited from some of the funding storms across a wide swath of Iraq. Gulf nations fear its extremism could be a threat to them as well. But the tangle of rivalries in the region is complex: Saudi Arabia and its allies firmly oppose any U.S. military action to stop the Islamic State’s advance in Iraq because they don’t want to boost its Shiite-led prime minister or his ally, Iran. (AP Photo, File)

AYA BATRAWY
Associated Press

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) -- Saudi Arabia and other petro-powerhouses of the Gulf for years encouraged a flow of private cash to Sunni rebels in Syria. Now an al-Qaida breakaway group that benefited from some of that funding has stormed across a wide swath of Iraq, and Gulf nations fear its extremism could be a threat to them as well.

Those countries are trying to put the brakes on the network of private fundraisers sending money to the rebel movement, hoping to halt financing going to the radical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Fundraising clerics complain that they are being told not to collect money for any Syrian rebels.

"Right now there is a siege. All the Gulf countries that were supportive have barred that support," Kuwaiti cleric Nabil al-Awadi angrily said on his TV program.

At the same time, the Gulf states sharply oppose any U.S. military assistance to Iraq's Shiite-led government aimed at stopping the extremists' rapid advance. And they are furious at the possibility that Washington could cooperate with top rival Iran to help Iraq.

Their stance reflects the complex tangle of national rivalries and sectarian enmities in the region. Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, along with its Gulf allies, have had the primary goal of stopping the influence of mainly Shiite Iran in the Middle East, and they deeply oppose Iran's ally, Iraqi Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom they accuse of discriminating against his country's Sunni minority.

Gulf states are torn over the Islamic State's victories. While they would welcome a more Sunni-friendly government in Iraq, they also fear Islamic radicals might eventually turn their weapons on the Gulf's pro-Western monarchies. Gulf leaders also worry Iran will have an even bigger role in Iraq -- a scenario already beginning to play out with top Iranian military figures in Baghdad helping organize the army.

In phone calls this week with the leaders or foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry heard a chorus of disapproval for any kind of U.S. military operation to help al-Maliki, such as airstrikes or train-and-equip missions, according to U.S. officials familiar with the conversations. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the private exchanges.

Earlier this week, Saudi Arabia's Cabinet put out a statement blaming the insurgent explosion on al-Maliki's government's marginalization of the Sunni minority -- "the sectarian and exclusionary policies practiced in Iraq over the past years."

Iraq's Cabinet replied Tuesday with a furious statement of its own, accusing Saudi Arabia of fueling the Islamic States' rise and of "appeasement to terrorism." It said it holds the kingdom accountable for "the resulting crimes, which are tantamount to genocide."

The Islamic State's surge in Iraq is in part a blowback from the Gulf countries' policies in neighboring Syria, where they have backed the Sunni-led rebellion in hopes of toppling another of Iran's allies, President Bashar Assad.

With government consent, influential and even state-linked Sunni clerics in the Gulf in recent years urged men to join rebels in Syria and drummed up donations for the Syrian cause in campaigns in mosques, online and on TV. The funds went to numerous Syrian rebel factions, but some are believed to have gone to extremist ones like the Islamic State.

David Cohen, of the U.S. Treasury Department, put the amounts raised in the hundreds of millions. Some of that went to legitimate humanitarian purposes, but much went the rebels, including extremist groups, Cohen -- who is the undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence -- said in a speech earlier this year. He did not provide more precise figures.

He said Kuwait has become "the epicenter of fundraising for terrorist groups in Syria," and money is being raised in Kuwait and Qatar for the Islamic State as well al-Qaida's affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front. The U.S. State Department said Monday there is no evidence of Gulf governments themselves funding Islamic State.

The head of the Western-backed Syrian opposition coalition, Ahmad Jarba, angrily denounced the international community for failing to support more moderate rebels from the Free Syrian Army and implicitly accused Gulf nations of backing the Islamic State in a speech to a gathering of leaders from Islamic countries in the Saudi city of Jiddah on Tuesday.

"Some leaders believed they could use terrorists as hired mercenaries but suddenly found themselves stuck with terrorists who used the opportunity to advance their own interests and agenda," Jarba said. Free Syrian Army fighters have been battling Islamic State forces in eastern Syria, trying to hold back their advances there.

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