Saudi Arabia believes the Iraqi government is not up to the challenge and has told the United States that it is prepared to move its own forces into Iraq should the violence there degenerate into chaos, a senior U.S. official told NBC News on Tuesday.
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal made no effort to mask his skepticism Tuesday about President Bush’s proposal to send 21,000 more U.S. troops to Iraq to stem sectarian fighting.
“We agree with the full objectives set by the new plan,” Saud said at a joint news conference in Riyadh with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is traveling in the region selling Bush’s plan. “We are hoping these objectives can be accomplished, but the means are not in our hands. They are in the hands of the Iraqis themselves.”
In fact, Saudi leaders are privately “deeply skeptical” that the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki could implement the U.S. plan, the senior U.S. official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell, who is traveling with Rice.
The Saudi government has signaled in the past that it would oppose an early withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, fearing it would leave minority Sunni Muslims at the mercy of Shiite Muslim militias.
The Saudis’ primary concern is the Sunni population of Anbar province, the senior U.S. official. The official said the Saudis had informed Washington that they were considering a plan to send troops into the province if Bush’s plan failed.
A White House spokesman declined to comment on the report, which Rice downplayed during a briefing for reporters. She said such a scenario was why it was important for the U.S. plan to produce a unified Iraq.
Rice seeks support for plan
Rice is in the region to lobby Egypt, Jordan and the six moderate Arab states in the Persian Gulf for a statement of support for Bush’s plan.
“I’ve briefed the president’s plan on Iraq at all the different stops,” Rice told reporters. “There is, I think, very good support for the American commitment there, very good support for the objectives the president wants to achieve.”
Bush’s proposal has met with wide skepticism as sectarian violence has deepened in Iraq. The United Nations reported Tuesday that more than 34,000 Iraqi civilians died last year; at least 109 people were killed or found dead Tuesday, the bloodiest day in weeks.
Bush acknowledged frustration at the turn of events in an interview Tuesday with PBS’s Jim Lehrer.
“I’m frustrated at times about Iraq because I understand the consequences of failure. I want the Iraqis to succeed for our own sake,” the president said, according to a transcript of the interview.
“This is a war, part of a broader war, and if we fail in Iraq, there is a better likelihood that the enemy comes and hurts us here.”
Saudis pledge no interference with Iran
While the focus of Rice’s tour is to drum up support for the U.S. initiative in Iraq, she was also seeking to put out a diplomatic brush fire over Iran after a top Iranian diplomat visited Riyadh to meet with King Abdullah to complain about the U.S. military build-up.
Saudi officials reassured Rice on Tuesday that they had no intention of getting in the middle of the dispute between Iran and the United States. Rice emphasized that the U.S. campaign to disrupt Iranian networks threatening U.S. forces in Iraq would be confined within the boundaries of Iraq, officials said.
During the meetings, Saud, the foreign minister, also welcomed Rice’s initiative to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, U.S. officials said.
NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell reported from Kuwait City. NBC News’ Kim Sneed reported from Washington.