(Update: Adds comment from Mideast experts opposed to the Saudi regime, and from the Saudi Embassy in Washington.)
(CNSNews.com) – In urging an end to sectarianism in the crisis engulfing Iraq and Syria, the Obama administration is focusing largely on the Shi’ite side of the equation – despite indications that Sunni parties, including U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, are fueling the strife as well.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki on Tuesday dismissed as “inaccurate and offensive” claims by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-dominated, Iranian-backed government that Saudi Arabia was supporting Sunni militia that have made stunning advances across Iraq over the past week.
Maliki’s government said it held Saudi Arabia responsible for financial and moral support for the jihadists, and for consequences which it said include “crimes that may qualify as genocide, the spilling of Iraqi blood, the destruction of Iraqi state institutions and historic and religious sites.”
It was not the first time in recent months that Maliki had pointed a finger at Saudi Arabia as well as Qatar, accusing them of funding extremist Sunni groups led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS/ISIL), which are fighting to extend control across parts of Syria and Iraq.
Tuesday’s accusations from Baghdad came on the same day that Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, visiting Saudi Arabia, described the kingdom as one of the United States’ “most important partners in combating terrorist financing.”
Driven by a desire to weaken the regional influence of longstanding rival Iran and see Tehran’s ally in Damascus toppled, Saudi Arabia is known to strongly sympathize with the anti-Assad cause. But its Shi’ite detractors claim it goes further, funneling support as well to radical jihadists among the rebellion, including ISIS, a virulently anti-Shia al-Qaeda offshoot.
Saudi Arabia denies claims of supporting ISIS in either Syria or Iraq. (According to Reva Bhalla of the independent intelligence analysis firm, Stratfor, there is “no love lost” between Saudi Arabia and ISIS, but the Saudis do maintain strong ties with other Iraqi Sunni groups involved in the current offensive, which it turn coordinate with ISIS.)
Responding to Maliki’s claims about the kingdom’s support for terrorism, the Saudi Embassy in Washington in a statement Wednesday said it “expresses its total rejection of these allegations, which have no basis in fact.”
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been in the forefront of combating terrorism, those that support terrorism and all forms of terror financing, working in close cooperation with countries around the world, including the United States,” it added.
On Monday Saudi’s council of ministers attributed the crisis in Iraq to Maliki’s “sectarian and exclusionary policies,” echoing a claim by Qatar’s foreign minister a day earlier that the marginalization of Iraq’s Sunni minority had triggered the current violence.
‘Sectarian Saudis support Sunni extremists’
Few impartial observers would dispute that Maliki has governed to benefit his Shia sect, but Sunni elements in the wider region are also responsible for fanning the sectarian flames in Iraq and Syria, which U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon warned Tuesday could ignite a regional religious war.
Saudi clerics, including the kingdom’s grand mufti, use sermons and the Internet to disseminate anti-Shi’ite messages, calling Shia “enemies of god” and “infidels,” and railing against Shi’ite Iran, its Hezbollah ally, and Syrian President Bashar Assad, an adherent of the Shi’ite Allawite sect.
Ali Al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, said Wednesday that ISIS was a “proxy of the Saudi monarchy and works under its control.”
“The State Department is avoiding the obvious – that the Saudi monarchy is behind Iraq’s troubles,” he said.
“There is no question that the Saudi monarchy and government is the most sectarian in the region if not the world, so the U.S. government should be honest when speaking on this issue.”
Ali Alyami, director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, said the U.S. government was hypocritical when it came to “well-documented” support by the Saudi government, extremist clerics, and wealthy businessmen’s support for Sunni extremists.
He recalled that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was quoted in a leaked 2009 diplomatic cable as saying that donors in Saudi Arabia were “the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”
“Former Saudi ambassador to the U.S. and Saudi chief spy, Prince Bandar, who was in charge of the Saudi support for Sunni murderous extremists in Syria, formed which he termed the ‘Army of Islam’ to overthrow” the Allawite regime in Damascus, Alyami said.
He also cited the Saudi military intervention in 2011 to support Bahrain’s minority Sunni rulers facing protests from the majority Shia population, and charged that the kingdom’s own Shi’ite minority was “marginalized, oppressed and denied their very basic human rights.”
“The Saudi autocrats should be the last in the world to blame anyone for sectarianism and religious intolerance.”
In a report delivered to the U.N. Human Rights Council on Tuesday, an independent panel of inquiry into the civil war in Syria expressed concern that the wider region could be on the brink of a Sunni-Shi’ite war.
The panel chairman, Brazilian lawyer Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, said the conflict had reached a “tipping point,” and now threatening the entire region, while panel member Vitit Muntarbhorn, a Thai law professor, warned that “we are possibly on the cusp of a regional war.”
The Sunni-Shi’ite schism dates back to a succession rift after the death of Mohammed in the seventh century. Today Shi’ites comprise between 10 and 15 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. Iran, Iraq, Bahrain and Azerbaijan are Shi’ite-majority countries, while significant minorities exist in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Turkey, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.