TIME Iraq

Iraq Leader Under Pressure to Step Aside as U.S. Looks Elsewhere

A moment of truth for Nouri al-Maliki

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Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki faced growing pressure Friday to make way for a new government, as the U.S. and its Middle Eastern allies turned to moderate Syrian opposition forces to curtail the growing influence of militants who control vast swaths of Iraq.

On multiple fronts, al-Maliki faced a country largely disintegrating before him. A top Shi’ite cleric urged the country’s parliament to pick a new Prime Minister before Monday, which could lead to the ouster of the highly divisive al-Maliki, a Shi’ite who has been criticized for not reaching out to the country’s Sunnis. Abdul Mahdi al-Karbalai, a cleric who represents Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, urged a new leader even as he called for national unity in a country that is quickly fracturing between Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds.

“Iraqis have passed bigger crises than this in the past history,” al-Karbalai, according to the New York Times. “We must not think of dividing Iraq as part of a solution for the current crises, the solution must protect the unity of Iraq and the rights of all its sects.”

In the north, local officials in the largely autonomous Kurdish region defied the demands of religious and government leaders, suggesting they have no intention of giving up the power they seized when Iraqi troops fled as fighters from the militant group ISIS advanced earlier this month.

“We have presented many sacrifices in the past,” Iraqi Kurdistan president Massoud Barzani told the Times. “Our lands have resorted to their origin identity.”

And American support for al-Maliki continued to appear on the wane. In Saudi Arabia, Secretary of State John Kerry stood beside Syrian opposition leader Ahmad Jarba as Jarba decried al-Maliki’s leadership.

“The policies of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, after eight years in power, have resulted in greater division,” Jarba said, according to a State Department readout of a news conference there. “Now the situation is very grave and there are sectarian militias ruling the country.”

Kerry also met with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to coordinate a response to the ISIS militants, whose gains have forced President Barack Obama to deploy a limited number of military advisers to Iraq.

The maneuvering came on a day when officials confirmed for the first time that the American military has begun flying armed drones over Baghdad to protect U.S. troops and officials on the ground. It also followed Obama’s Thursday announcement that the U.S. would provide an additional half-a-billion dollars to support Jarba’s forces, which the White House described as “appropriately vetted” fighters opposing Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Jarba’s group, which is composed of moderate Sunnis, has been fighting radical Islamist militants in Syria, particularly ISIS, as well as the government of Assad. The U.S. and its allies hope that the moderate group will play a key role in ending an insurgency that has given ISIS more territorial control in the region than any other Islamist group in recent memory.

“President Jarba represents a tribe that reaches right into Iraq,” Kerry said. “He knows the people there, and his point of view and the Syrian opposition’s will be very important going forward.”

TIME Iraq

In Iraq, Former Militia Program Eyed for New Fight

Iraq Awakening Councils
In this Jan. 16, 2013, file photo, Sahwa members, a group of Sunni Arabs who joined forces with the U.S. military to fight al-Qaida at the height of Iraq's insurgency, escort the coffin of Ifan Saadoun al-Issawi, during his funeral in Fallujah, Iraq. Hadi Mizban—AP

U.S. officials say they hope Sunnis will be similarly stirred to fight back against the new insurgency

(BAGHDAD) — They were known as the Sahwa, or the Awakening Councils — Sunni militiamen who took extraordinary risks to side with U.S. troops in the fight against al-Qaeda during the Iraq War. Once heralded as a pivotal step in the defeat of the bloody insurgency, the Sahwa later were pushed aside by Iraq’s Shiite-led government, starved of political support and money needed to remain a viable security force.

Now, the Obama administration is looking at the Sahwa, which still exist in smaller form, as a model for how to unite Sunni fighters against the rampant Islamic State of Iraq and Syria that has swept across most of the nation’s north. Also known as the Sons of Iraq — “sahwa” is Arabic for “awakening” — U.S. officials say they hope Sunnis will be similarly stirred to fight back against the new insurgency.

As many as 3,000 core ISIS fighters, many of them foreign, are believed to be in Iraq. But U.S. intelligence officials fear twice that many Iraqi Sunnis are vulnerable to being lured into the violence — pushing the country into an outright civil war. That has prompted the White House, State Department and CIA to look for incentives to keep as many disgruntled Sunnis as possible from joining the fight.

Being Sahwa can be dangerous. One Sunni militiaman, Abu Ahmed, said he began receiving text messages from Iraqi insurgent groups four months ago, threatening him if he remained a Sahwa member. He said he reported the threats to security forces, “but nobody cared.”

“The security officials told me that the safety of my family is my own responsibility, not theirs,” said Abu Ahmed, a father of five in Muqdadiyha, a Sunni enclave outside Baghdad. Like many Iraqis, he would only identify himself by his nickname out of fear for his family’s safety. “It seems that both the government and the insurgents hate Sahwa.”

The Obama administration knows it cannot recreate the original Sahwa security movement, which was supported and bolstered by American troops in Sunni-dominated areas of western and northern Iraq. Over a three-year period after the Sahwa campaign began in late 2006, the U.S. military paid them at least $370 million.

The Obama administration has no immediate plans to arm or fund the Sunni security militias, and there are too few American personnel in Iraq now to try to duplicate the original joint force.

It’s thought likely that Iraq’s Sunni neighbors — notably Jordan and Saudi Arabia — will use their cross-border tribal networks to bolster the security militias with financing or weapons, but it’s not clear whether Washington would even support that privately. The U.S. probably would want to vet the tribes before they received any money or arms, even from other nations, to ensure that the aid does not get passed along to ISIS or other extremist groups.

A similar process in Syria has delayed assistance to the frustrated moderate Sunni rebels in their three-year civil war to eject President Bashar Assad, whose Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiism.

Secretary of State John Kerry was in the Mideast this week to push Iraq toward creating a more inclusive government that equally empowers Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, and potentially replaces Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, as the best option to quell ISIL.

“The problem is, there are far too many tribes sitting on the sidelines,” said retired Army Col. Peter Mansoor, who helped build the original Sahwa program and is now a professor at Ohio State University. “But if the Iraqi government can re-form the alliance with the tribes, and present itself to the Arab Sunnis as a government they can support, then I think the portion of ISIS that’s composed of foreign jihadists could be defeated in short order.”

Kerry is also meeting with diplomats from Saudi Arabia and Jordan to discuss Iraq, and the issue of trying to keep Sunni fighters out of the insurgency will be high on their agenda, officials said. Requests by The Associated Press for comment from Saudi and Jordanian diplomats and intelligence officials were either refused or not immediately granted.

“We’re hearing from Sunni leaders across the board that they really want to do something about ISIS. They’re figuring out how to do it,” said one senior State Department official who, like more than a half-dozen other U.S. officials interviewed, spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue by name.

He said many of the Sunni tribes first want to unseat al-Maliki.

Al-Maliki for years promised American officials he would hire the Sahwa to diversify the overwhelmingly Shiite government security forces and ensure the Sunni militiamen would continue to be paid once the U.S. troops left the country. But the vast majority of an estimated 90,000 Sahwa never got government jobs and, if they are paid by local authorities in the areas they protect, they receive less than a few hundred dollars each month.

Betrayed by al-Maliki’s broken promises, and threatened by insurgents, many Sahwa now feel that joining forces with extremists is a safer bet. Abu Ahmed is among them, and said he recently began fighting with a different Sunni extremist group that calls itself the Islamic Army.

“They are more moderate than ISIS, and they do not kill Shiites or other people randomly, and they are able to protect my family from ISIS,” Abu Ahmed said. He added, bitterly, “We have sacrificed a lot and risked our lives in fighting al-Qaeda, and our reward from al-Maliki was less money.”

U.S. officials believe a significant number of Sunni tribal fighters are now fighting alongside ISIS, including the Sahwa and an estimated 1,000 former Baathists and others loyal to the late President Saddam Hussein. There are still large numbers of Sunni fighters who have not sided with ISIS, the officials said, but there is a fear they might join in if Iranian-backed Shiite militias begin playing a prominent role in the fighting. That would mirror the kind of sectarian bloodshed that brought Iraq to the brink of civil war at the time the Sahwa were created.

The U.S. hopes the majority of Sahwa and other disgruntled Sunnis will resist allying with ISIS simply because they reject extremism and an insurgency that, over the years, has killed thousands of civilians and bystanders in random attacks. And at least some Sunnis agree.

“I have no intention to join the insurgents because they do nothing but kill people,” said Abu Humam, who joined a Sahwa militia near Ramadi in 2007 and suffered severe leg wounds while fighting al-Qaeda a year later. But he, too, voiced anger at al-Maliki, whom he accused of neglecting the Sahwa and making them easy targets for insurgents.

“Hundreds of Sahwa fighters have given up during the past months,” Abu Humam said. “Either they have stayed home or joined insurgent groups.”

___

Associated Press writers Julie Pace and Ken Dilanian in Washington contributed to this report.

TIME Foreign Policy

U.S. Weighs Anti-ISIS Strategy in Iraq and Syria

Demonstrators carry the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria's flags in the Iraqi city of Mosul, 360 km (225 miles) northwest of Baghdad, on June 16, 2014
Demonstrators carry the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria's flags in the Iraqi city of Mosul, 225 miles (360 km) northwest of Baghdad, on June 16, 2014 AP

Questions of how lessons from the past decade apply to the growing threat from Islamist extremists in Iraq. Current and former counterterrorism officials tell TIME that the ISIS militant group storming across Iraq seems focused more on its enemies in the region than on Americans thousands of miles away, buying time for a more narrowly tailored response

What did America gain for the blood and treasure it spent in Iraq from 2003 to 2011? The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) over the past year and the collapse of central control by the government in Baghdad in recent weeks suggest to some that the long and costly effort in Iraq yielded little.

But current and former government counterterrorism officials learned at least one important lesson from the fight against al-Qaeda allies in Iraq and elsewhere: restraint. For them, ISIS looks like a growing threat to the U.S., but not an imminent one, for now focused more on its enemies in the region than on Americans thousands of miles away. That buys the U.S. time to see if others can address the threat and to weigh helping them if necessary.

“One of the big questions right now is whether [ISIS] can turn its tactical victories in Iraq into strategic gains,” says a U.S. counterterrorism official. “With only a few thousand fighters, [ISIS] couldn’t have moved as rapidly as it has without the support of some nationalist Sunni groups and sympathetic tribes, some of which are merely drafting off of [ISIS’s] advances and may not cooperate over the long haul.”

The U.S. has been watching for signs that the Sunni tribes, aggrieved at their treatment by the post-Saddam Shi‘ite leadership of Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad, have pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Dua, but so far they have not seen it. That suggests to the officials more of an alliance of convenience between the tribes and ISIS than a long-term commitment to the group’s radical agenda. That pattern played out from 2006 to 2008, when the tribes aligned with ISIS’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, but then turned on the group and drove it out.

America’s approach to counterterrorism outside Iraq has been informed by that experience as well. The success against so-called core al-Qaeda in Afghanistan left loosely linked terrorist franchises around the world aligned more in spirit than operation. At different times over the past decade, the U.S. has faced growing threats from al-Qaeda franchises in Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen. While some of those groups have posed real threats to the U.S., they have often been focused closer to home.

“The evil genius of [Osama] bin Laden was persuading people that the enemy was the far enemy,” says former senior CIA and FBI counterterrorism official Philip Mudd. “Increasingly, I see near-enemy al-Qaedas — in Yemen, in Syria, in Iraq — who want to take over the police station, kill the guards and take over the government, not necessarily saying, I want to spend a lot of time [focused on the U.S.]”

The question is what action the U.S. can take, if any, that will keep ISIS focused locally and attempt to split the tribes away from it. That strategic calculation is informed by the pre-9/11 lesson that local threats can become international threats if they don’t face a local foe, and if they are led by a visionary. “When groups that have a poisonous ideology don’t have to fight the government, idle hands are the devil’s workplace, and they start to think bigger,” says Mudd.

TIME Infectious Disease

It Looks Like Camels Actually Can Transmit MERS to Humans

Camel MERS
An Indian worker wears a mouth and nose mask as he touches a camel at his Saudi employer's farm outside Riyadh on May 12, 2014. Fayez Nureldine—AFP/Getty Images

Scientists confirm a man who died of MERS had same virus as one of his camels

Genetic sequencing has confirmed that a man who died of MERS in November likely got the disease from one of the camels in his herd.

In Nov, 2013, a 44-year-old previously healthy Saudi Arabian man came down with MERS and eventually died. A new study published in The New England Journal of Medicine reports that scientists from King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah have shown that his virus was virtually identical to the virus found in one of his camels.

The scientists report that three of the man’s friends accompanied him when he visited his camels and witnessed him put medicine in the nose of calf. Later on, it was shown that the calf had the same virus as the man, suggesting he got MERS from his camel.

The man’s friends and daughter, who also had cold symptoms recovered, as did the camel.

TIME Infectious Disease

Saudi Arabia Revises MERS Death Toll Up 48%

SAUDI-HEALTH-MERS-VIRUS
A Saudi man walks towards the King Fahad hospital in the city of Hofuf, 370 kms East of the Saudi capital Riyadh, on June 16, 2013. FAYEZ NURELDINE—AFP/Getty Images

Saudi Arabia confirmed Tuesday an additional 113 cases of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), dramatically raising the kingdom’s caseload to a total of 688.

Reuters reports that Saudi Arabia’s Health Ministry released the revised figures after officials conducted a deeper review of the nation’s medical records. In addition to the heavier caseload, officials raised the virus’ death toll by 48% from 190 to 282 known deaths.

“While the review has resulted in a higher total number of previously unreported cases,” read a statement from Tariq Madani, head of the ministry’s scientific advisory board, “we still see a decline in the number of new cases reported over the past few weeks.”

Saudi Arabia dismissed its Deputy Health Minister Doctor Ziad Memish on Tuesday, without elaborating on the reasons for his dismissal, Reuters reports. The sacking comes only six weeks after Health Minister Abdullah al-Rabeeah was fired amid rising MERS infection rates.

[Reuters]

TIME Infectious Disease

2 Hospital Workers Treating MERS Patient Show Virus-Like Symptoms

Ken Michaels
Ken Michaels MD talks at a Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) press conference at Dr. Phillips hospital on May 13, 2014 in Orlando, Florida. Reinhold Matay—AP

Flu-like respiratory symptoms have been seen in health care workers exposed to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome patient in Orlando, Fla. A total of 20 are being tested for the disease

Two health care workers at the Orlando, Fla. hospital treating a confirmed Middle East Respiratory Sydrome patient are showing symptoms associated with the virus.

Dr. P. Phillips Hospital, where the MERS patient is being treated, confirmed to TIME that two health workers are experiencing flu-like symptoms. One has been hospitalized, while the other is currently isolated at their home, and is being monitored. Neither has yet been diagnosed with MERS, the hospital said.

A total of 20 health care workers at Dr. P. Phillips Hospital are now undergoing testing for MERS after being exposed to the patient, the hospital confirmed to TIME. The virus is not a severe risk to the general public, but human transmission appears to happen among people who interact with those who are infected, typically in a health care setting.

Like the first patient in Indiana, the new patient lives in Saudi Arabia and is a health care worker there. The patient flew from Jeddah to London, and then to Boston, before traveling to Atlanta and finally Orlando to visit family. The patient started feeling ill during the flight from Jeddah to London, and had symptoms like fever, chills and a slight cough. The patient visited the emergency room at an Orange County hospital, and was isolated.

MERS is a respiratory virus that is in the same family as the common cold and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). The disease appeared two years ago in Saudi Arabia, and to date, there are over 500 total cases, and over 100 deaths. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the risk to Americans is extremely low, and there are currently no travel restrictions in place.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said earlier today that President Obama has been briefed on the two cases of MERS in the U.S, and that the White House is “watching this very closely.”

The MERS patient is Florida is said to be in stable condition, and the first patient in Indiana has already been discharged from the hospital.

TIME Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia Identifies 18 New Cases of MERS

A Saudi man wears a mouth and nose mask as he walks in a street of the Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah on April 27, 2014 AFP/Getty Images

There have been 449 cases of MERS in Saudi Arabia, which has seen the bulk of cases, and 121 people have died. In April, the number of cases in the country nearly doubled after outbreaks in hospitals.

Officials in Saudi Arabia said late Wednesday they have identified 18 new cases of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in the country, Reuters reports. The government also said four more people died of the disease Wednesday.

The new cases raise Saudi Arabia’s official number of MERS cases to 449, making it the country hardest hit by the deadly virus, which kills about a third of the people it infects. 121 people have died from the virus in Saudi Arabia, where the number of infections has surged since April amid outbreaks in hospitals in Jeddah and Riyadh.

MERS, a form of coronavirus similar to SARS, causes coughing, fever and pneumonia. It was first identified two years ago. Researchers have been largely stumped by the origin and transmission patterns of the virus, which some scientists have linked to bats and, increasingly, camels.

A case of the virus was confirmed in the United States for the first time earlier this month. Other cases have been reported in more than a dozen other countries, including Britain, France and Jordan.

[Reuters]

TIME Infectious Disease

Saudi Arabia Reports More MERS Deaths

Saudi Arabia reports three more deaths as cases continue to rise

Saudi Arabia’s death toll from MERS has hit 115.

The Associated Press reports that on Monday, a 45-year-old man and two women in their 50s died from MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) after contracting it in the western Saudia Arabia city Jiddah.

Three additional people now have the disease, health officials report, bringing the Saudi Arabian total to 414 confirmed cases — and just last week, the CDC reported the first case in the U.S. The U.S. victim was isolated right away, and doctors say he will likely be heading home soon. He is currently at Community Hospital in Munster, Ind. The patient lives in Saudi Arabia and works in a hospital. He was visiting family in the U.S. on a planned trip.

MERS is in the same virus family as SARS. It has no vaccine or treatment, and researchers believe the disease may have come from camels. So far, human-to-human transmission has only occurred among people with close contact with infected people.

There’s worry over how much the disease could spread in July when millions of people are expected to visit on Saudi Arabia for Ramadan. In October, millions of Muslims will also gather in the city of Mecca for the Hajj, an annual Islamic pilgrimage. Health officials are worried about transmission.

[AP]

 

TIME health

MERS Shows That The Next Pandemic Is Only a Plane Flight Away

SARS ravaged Hong Kong in 2003
A single patient seeded Hong Kong's SARS outbreak in 2003 Peter Parks—AFP/Getty Images

On Feb. 21, 2003, a 64-year-old Chinese physician named Dr. Liu Jianlun traveled to Hong Kong to attend a wedding. He stayed in room 911 on the ninth floor of the Metropole Hotel. Liu, who had been treating cases of a mysterious respiratory disease in the neighboring Chinese province of Guangdong, was already sick when he arrived in Hong Kong, and the next day he checked into the city’s Kwong Wah hospital. Liu died on Mar. 4 of the disease doctors soon named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS. But before he died, he inadvertently infected at least 16 people who spent time on the ninth floor of that Hotel.

Some of those people boarded international flights before they knew they were sick, seeding new outbreaks in places like Vietnam, Taiwan and Singapore. SARS had been confined to southern China for months, but once Liu checked into the Metropole Hotel, it was only a matter of time before the first new infectious disease of the 21st century went global. Before it was stamped out months later, SARS had infected 8,273 people, killing 775 people in 37 countries.

It’s that chain of events that must have been on American officials’ minds last week when news broke that the U.S. had its first case of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). A male health care provider had been in Saudi Arabia, the epicenter for the ongoing MERS outbreaks, before flying to Chicago via London on Apr. 24. After arriving in Chicago, he took a bus to the Indiana town of Munster, where on Apr. 28 he was admitted to the hospital and was eventually diagnosed with MERS. A deadly respiratory disease that has already infected hundreds, almost all in Saudi Arabia, and killed over 100 people had come to the U.S.

CDC officials played down the larger threat of the first U.S. MERS case. “In this interconnected world we live in, we expected MERS to make its way to the U.S.,” Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters on May 2. “We have been preparing for this.” CDC officials will contact and track individuals who might have been close to the patient — including health workers who treated him and fellow travelers on his international flights and his bus ride to Munster — just in case any developed MERS symptoms. That’s not likely. So far MERS hasn’t shown much ability to spread easily from person to person, so the threat to the larger U.S. public is probably very small.

But if that Indiana case remains isolated — and MERS itself never becomes the global health threat that SARS was — it only means we were lucky.

As Schuchat put it, exotic, emerging diseases are now “just a plane’s ride away.” In the past, before international air travel became common, emerging pathogens could begin infecting people but remain geographically isolated for decades. Scientists now think that HIV was active among people in Central Africa for decades before it really began spreading globally in the 1970s, again thanks largely to international air travel. Today there’s almost no spot on the planet — from the rainforests of Cameroon to the hinterland of China — so remote that someone couldn’t make it to a heavily populated city like New York or Hong Kong in less than 24 hours, potentially carrying a new infectious disease with them.

The surest way to prevent the spread of new infectious disease would be to shut down international travel and trade, which is obviously not going to happen. The occasional pandemic might simply be one of the prices we pay for a globalized world. But we can do much more to try to detect and snuff out new pathogens before they endanger the health of the planet.

Because most new diseases emerge in animals before jumping to human beings (the virus that causes MERS seems to infect humans mostly via camel, though bats may be the original source), we need to police the porous boundary between animal health and human health. That work is being done by groups like Global Viral (whose founder I profiled in November 2011) is creating an early warning system capable of forecasting and containing new pathogens before they fuel pandemics. But as the stubborn spread of MERS shows, that’s easier said than done — especially if diseases emerge in countries that have less than open political systems.

Because as it turns out, the driving factor behind the spread of new diseases isn’t just globalization. It’s also political denial. SARS was able to spread beyond China’s borders in part because the Chinese government initially covered up the outbreaks — at one point even driving SARS patients around Beijing in ambulances to hide them from an international health team. Meanwhile, the autocratic Saudi government has made life difficult for researchers studying MERS. Much the same thing happened when the avian flu virus H5N1 began spreading in Southeast Asia in 2004. In every case, a rapid and public response might have contained those viruses before they threatened the rest of the world.

Eleven years later Hong Kong’s Metropole Hotel is now called the Metropark, and Liu Jianlun’s infamous room 911 doesn’t exist any more. After SARS, hotel management changed the number to 913 in an attempt to scrub out the past. Denial is always so tempting. But in an interconnected world, where the travel plans of a single person can seed deadly outbreaks a continent away, it’s no longer an option.

TIME Saudi Arabia

Saudis Show Off a Missile As Tensions Rise With Iran

Saudi worries about a nuclear Iran may be behind display of a missile that could reach Tehran

Saudi Arabia bought its mid-range Dong Feng-3 ballistic missiles from China in the late 1980s, but had not put them on public display until they were wheeled past a reviewing stand at the Hafr al-Batin military base this week, at the parade concluding the largest military exercise the kingdom has ever mounted.

It was no secret that the Saudis had the missiles, but the public outing of the weapons on Tuesday was broadly interpreted by analysts as Saudi Arabia sending a message to its regional rival, Iran, at a time when the countries are battling at one remove in Syria, and the Saudis feel betrayed by Washington for attempting a rapprochement with Tehran by embracing negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program.

“They’ve been kept under wraps all these years, albeit they were known to be there; it’s just quite interesting for us to see them on show,” says Jeremy Binnie, editor of Jane’s Terrorism and Security Monitor, who was among the experts taking note of the Saudi showcase.

“I think there’s a few different ways you could potentially read it, but certainly one is as a sort of display of Saudi Arabia’s ability to retaliate in kind to Iranian ballistic missile attacks. And that was sort of the message coming out of this exercise in general, quite a lot of publicity by Saudi Arabia standards all round.”

The Saudis and Iranians are longtime rivals divided foremost by faith – the Saudis functioning as guardians of Islam’s dominant Sunni branch, while the Iranians lead the minority Shia denomination. But the competition has ramped up in recent years as Iran has drawn Iraq into its orbit (as the Saudis insistently warned Washington would happen if the secular Sunni dictator, Saddam Hussein, was brought down), and has sharpened as Iran has drawn nearer to the capability of producing a nuclear weapon.

Iran says it has never had plans to build a nuclear bomb. It is currently engaged in negotiations over its nuclear program with the United States and other world powers. Those talks are reportedly proceeding well of late. Which is small comfort to the Saudis. “They don’t have much faith in the Obama administration,” says Meir Javedanfar, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at IDC Herzliya, a private Israeli university. “They are worried Washington is going to reach a deal with the Iranians and leave the Saudis behind.”

Hence Riyadh’s tough talk about going it alone. “We do not hold any hostility to Iran and do not wish any harm to it or to its people, who are Muslim neighbors,” Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former head of Saudi intelligence, told a security conference for Gulf states last week. “But preserving our regional security requires that we, as a Gulf grouping, work to create a real balance of forces with it, including in nuclear know-how, and to be ready for any possibility in relation to the Iranian nuclear file.”

Tehran routinely showcases its own arsenal in parades, as well as mounting war games several times a year. But at the Saudi base, the reviewing stand also conveyed a message: Among the dignitaries was the chief of Pakistan’s army, Gen. Raheel Sharif, whose presence, along with the missiles, could be read as a threat to top a Saudi missile with a Pakistani nuclear warhead. The Saudis reportedly aided Pakistan in its clandestine and successful nuclear effort, and have done little to quell reports that Islamabad might provide its loyal friend with a warhead should Iran actually produce an atomic bomb.

“You can read what you like into it,” says Binnie. “But having a high-ranked Pakistan guy there helps keep that idea alive that Saudi Arabia might be in a position to get nuclear warheads form Pakistan if Iran goes nuclear, which the Saudis want us to believe at the moment.”

Will the Iranians respond? Not on any parade ground, says Javedanfar,who lived in Iran in 1987.

“It is a flexing of the muscles, but the war being fought between Iran and Saudi Arabia is not one where you can use missiles,” he says. “It’s proxy war, where you can use your intelligence agents, you use terror, you use unconventional means. That’s why I don’t think this is going to impress the Iranians too much.”

What might impress Tehran, he says, is a bold move in Syria, the main proxy war between the two Middle East powers. Iran and its proxy, the Lebanese Shiite militia Hizballah, heavily support President Bashar Assad against rebels armed and supported by the Saudis and a handful of other majority-Sunni nations. “I don’t think either Iran or Saudi Arabia sees the other as a conventional threat,” says Javedanfar. “If we see a flooding of Pakistani weapons to the rebels in Syria, this is the kind of thing that will worry the Iranians, not a Saudi missile.”

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