RIYADH (Reuters) - Recent reports suggesting there are significant numbers of Saudis fighting alongside Islamist militant groups in Iraq and Lebanon have provoked embarrassment and soul-searching in Saudi Arabia.
Iraq’s National Security Advisor Mowaffak al-Rubaie said this week that Iraq had tried 160 Saudis for involvement in violence, and a report in a U.S. newspaper said 45 percent of foreigners fighting in Iraq were Saudis.
Lebanese officials say dozens of Saudis are among militants of the Fatah al-Islam militant group which has been battling the army for two months in a Palestinian refugee camp in north Lebanon.
The Saudi-owned Arabic press has countered the reports, citing officials who say the numbers are exaggerated in both Iraq and Lebanon.
Columnists are once again wrestling with the issue of the Saudi role in global Islamist militancy, an issue which first came up after the September 11 attacks in 2001 where 15 of the 19 attackers were Saudi nationals.
“The question raised since the 9/11 terrorist attacks is whether Saudis, once known as the most peace-loving people, are aware that they have become an international problem?” wrote Abdel-Rahman al-Rashed in Asharq al-Awsat newspaper this week.
“Why Saudis, we may ask? Because they are mentally and politically prepared to act like time bombs that can be manipulated by regimes with dangerous political agendas.”
Saudi Arabia has blamed Iran for stoking radical sentiment in the region, through backing its allies Syria, Iraqi Shi‘ite groups, Lebanese group Hezbollah and Palestinian group Hamas.
Saudis, in turn, have joined Arabs fighting in the ranks of al Qaeda in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Estimates on the numbers have varied from hundreds to thousands.
“Why is the Iraqi government exaggerating the number of Saudis, while denying any role of Iranians in the violence?” Abdelaziz al-Suwaid wrote in al-Hayat newspaper on Thursday, blaming non-Arab Shi‘ite Iran for stoking violence.
Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz recently asked Saudi clerics to do more to stop Saudis going to fight in Iraq, saying they were being exploited as suicide bombers.
Saudi Arabia is an Islamic state which rules according to an austere school of Sunni Islam called Wahhabism. Many Saudi clerics regard Shi‘ites as heretics though no prominent clerics have publicly called on Saudis to fight in Iraq.
“The authorities can’t fail to be embarrassed ... but as to what the real numbers are, it’s difficult to judge,” said Neil Partrick of the International Crisis Group.
“The Saudi position in general is that they have spent a lot of money on their direct border with Iraq, and they see themselves as having actively pursued radical messages and fatwas (edicts) issued by Saudi clerics,” he said.