During an informal luncheon session in New York on April 26, 2004, Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Saud Al-Faisal answered questions on Saudi-U.S. relations, Iraq, and the Middle East, from members of the editorial staff of the Wall Street Journal.
Below is a summary of the article that appeared on page A-3 of the April 27, 2004 edition, written by Wall Street Journal staff reporter Gerald F. Seib and titled 'Saudi Official Says Iraq Handoff May Be Imperiled'.
The current American plan to hand over sovereignty to Iraqis at the end of June is imperiled unless Iraq’s new rulers are given an army that the United States allows to exercise real authority, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister said Monday.
Prince Saud al-Faisal described the American decision to disband the Iraqi army last year as a serious error, and said a reconstituted Iraqi military now is the “linchpin” to ending the security morass in which American occupying forces find themselves. He also said the US erred in trying to excise from power all members of Saddam Hussein’s ruling Baath party, rather than just selected ones, a decision that left the US without a local civilian power structure to help in restoring order.
In a luncheon interview with the Wall Street Journal, Prince Saud also said the United States should have moved more emphatically last year to rein in Muqtada al Sadr, the stridently anti-American Shiite cleric. He suggested the United States should now move swiftly against Sadr, even though seizing him might further inflame his followers, and understand that it is hard to “be an occupier who is loved by the people you are occupying”.
Prince Saud, who said he advised President Bush against resorting to war to deal with Saddam Hussein, painted a bleak picture of American options in Iraq at the moment. He said Saudi Arabia and other Arab states would be “reticent” to send military forces to help stabilize the country, though that topic will be discussed among Arab leaders in coming weeks. While he said the United Nations should play a more prominent role in sorting out Iraq’s future, he said its ability to make an impact would be severely limited unless there was a considerable international military force on hand to back up its role.
He made clear that he thinks the decision to disband the Iraq military, made shortly after the U.S. takeover last spring, lies at the heart of many of today’s difficulties. He said a principal reason Arab states are reluctant to contribute peacekeeping troops is the absence of an Iraqi army to serve alongside. “Right now Saudi Arabia wouldn’t contribute anybody to go to Iraq,” he said. “But you change the circumstances and that is a different ballgame.”
One way to change the circumstances, he implied, would be to give the UN a larger role in the future of the country. But at the moment, he said, that isn’t a good option because the UN would need a military force to back up its authority. The UN today, he said, “has no power. It has no money. It cannot spend one dollar without the signature” of American authorities.
The United States, though, hasn’t brought nearly enough troops to keep order in Iraq on its own, he said. “You cannot bring order to Iraq with 150,000 troops,” he said. “That is just impossible.” Iraq’s pattern of sectarian strife among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds runs so deep that the country has inevitably moved between chaos and dictatorship, he said.
Despite those problems, Prince Saud said he wouldn’t advise the United States to postpone its promised transfer of sovereignty on June 30. Instead, he said, the administration’s best option is to make the transfer more sweeping than the United States appears to envision at the moment. “If you promise to transfer power on a certain date, you must transfer on the date you announce,” he said. “But give it the credibility it needs. Give it its own armed forces, and those forces must have the power to be credible. ...... Unless you are really transferring authority, it doesn’t really mean anything.”
On another matter, Prince Saud reiterated that Saudi Arabia continues to seek oil prices between $22 and $28 a barrel, the same target range it has long advocated. He said that despite reports spinning out of a new book by Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, the Saudi policy on oil pricing has been unchanged by the presidential campaign in the United States.