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Iraq starting to fall apart, Saudi leader warns U.S.

'Disintegration could drag the region into war, Prince Saud says

Prince Saud
Prince Saud

WASHINGTON — Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, said Thursday that he has been warning the Bush administration in recent days that Iraq is hurtling toward disintegration, a development that he said could drag the region into war.

"There is no dynamic now pulling the nation together," he said in a meeting with reporters at the Saudi Embassy here. "All the dynamics are pulling the country apart."

He said he was so concerned that he was carrying this message "to everyone who will listen" in the Bush administration.

Saud's statements, some of the most pessimistic public comments on Iraq by a Middle East leader in recent months, were in stark contrast to the generally upbeat assessments that the White House and the Pentagon have been offering.

But in an appearance at the Pentagon on Thursday, President Bush, while once again expressing long-term optimism, warned that the bloodshed in Iraq was likely to increase in the coming weeks.

"Today, our commanders made it clear," he said after a meeting on Iraq with senior military officers, "as Iraqis prepare to vote on their constitution in October and elect a permanent government in December, we must be prepared for more violence."

U.S. commanders have repeatedly warned that insurgents would try to disrupt the voting, as they did before legislative elections in January.

Bush said that if the United States left Iraq now, it could turn into a haven for terrorists, as Afghanistan was before the fall of the Taliban. "To leave Iraq now would be to repeat the costly mistakes of the past that led to the attacks of September 11, 2001," he said.

Saud, here for meetings with administration officials, blamed several U.S. decisions for the slide toward disintegration, though he did not refer to the Bush administration directly. Primary among them was designating "every Sunni as a Baathist criminal," he said.

Saudi Arabia styles itself as the capital and protector of Sunni Islam, and the prince's remarks — at times harsh and at other moments careful — were emblematic of the conflicted Saudi-American relationship. A senior administration official, reacting to Saud's remarks, said, "The United States values and respects his view, and we all share a common concern for the future and stability of Iraq." He declined to be identified, under administration policy.

Saud, who said he met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week, said American officials generally responded to his warnings by telling him that the United States successfully carried off the Iraqi elections, and "they say the same things about the constitution" and the broader situation in Iraq now.

On Thursday, in fact, the senior administration official said, "The forward movement of the political process is the best answer."

Saud argued: "But what I am trying do is say that unless something is done to bring Iraqis together, elections alone won't do it. A constitution alone won't do it."

Saud, a son of the late King Faisal who has been foreign minister for 30 years, said he sits on a council of Iraq's neighboring countries — Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Iran and Kuwait as well as Saudi Arabia — "and the main worry of all the neighbors" is that the potential disintegration of Iraq into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish states would "bring other countries in the region into the conflict." Turkey, he noted, has long threatened to send troops into northern Iraq if the Kurds there declared independence. He said Iran is sending money and weapons into the Shiite-controlled south of Iraq and would probably step up its involvement should the south become independent. Iran is a Shiite theocracy, and Saudi Arabia has long been wary of its influence in the region. "This is a very dangerous situation," Saud said, "a very threatening situation."

Contributing: David Sanger