After backing Sunni rebels in Syria, Gulf nations face blowback in militant campaign in Iraq

The Associated Press

FILE - This April 28, 2014 file photo shows armed, masked antigovernment gunmen patrolling Fallujah, Iraq, after Al-Qaida-linked fighters and their allies seized the city months ago. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf petro-powerhouses encouraged a flow of cash to Sunni rebels in Syria for years. But now they face a worrying blowback as an al-Qaida breakaway group that benefited from some of the funding storms across a wide swath of Iraq. Gulf nations fear its extremism could be a threat to them as well. But the tangle of rivalries in the region is complex: Saudi Arabia and its allies firmly oppose any U.S. military action to stop the Islamic State’s advance in Iraq because they don’t want to boost its Shiite-led prime minister or his ally, Iran. (AP Photo, File)

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By AYA BATRAWY and MATTHEW LEE, Associated Press

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Saudi Arabia and other petro-powerhouses of the Gulf for years encouraged a flow of private cash to Sunni rebels in Syria. Now an al-Qaida breakaway group that benefited from some of the funding has stormed across a wide swath of Iraq, and Gulf nations fear its extremism could be a threat to them as well.

Those countries are now trying to put the brakes on the network of private fundraisers sending money to the rebel movement, hoping to halt the financing going to the radical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. But at the same time, they sharply oppose any U.S. military assistance to Iraq's Shiite-led government aimed at stopping the extremists' rapid advance — and are furious at the possibility Washington could cooperate with their top rival Iran to help Iraq.

Their stance reflects the complex tangle of national rivalries and sectarian enmities in the region. Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, along with its Gulf allies, have had the primary goal of stopping the influence of mainly Shiite Iran in the Middle East, and they deeply oppose Iran's ally, Iraq's Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom they accuse of discriminating against his country's Sunni minority.

They are torn over the Islamic State's stunning victories. They would be happy if the insurgency forces the removal of al-Maliki and his replacement with a more Sunni-friendly government. But long term, they fear the Islamic State or other radicals inspired by it could eventually turn their weapons against the Gulf's pro-Western monarchies. And they are alarmed that its power could increase Iran's role in Iraq — a scenario already realized with top Iranian military figures in Baghdad helping organize the army.

"They all hate al-Maliki and they all hate Iran, they want to see it play out," one U.S. official said.

In phone calls this week with the leaders or foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry heard a chorus of disapproval for any kind of U.S. military operation to help al-Maliki, such as airstrike or train-and-equip missions, according to U.S. officials familiar with the conversations. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the private exchanges.

Earlier this week, Saudi Arabia's Cabinet put out a statement blaming the insurgent explosion on al-Maliki's government's marginalization of the Sunni minority — "the sectarian and exclusionary policies practiced in Iraq over the past years."

Iraq's Cabinet replied Tuesday with a furious statement of its own, accusing Saudi Arabia of fueling the Islamic States' rise and of "appeasement to terrorism." It said it holds the kingdom accountable for "the resulting crimes, which are tantamount to genocide."

The Islamic State's surge in Iraq is in part a blowback from the Gulf countries' policies in neighboring Syria, where they have backed the Sunni-led rebellion in hopes of toppling another of Iran's allies, President Bashar Assad.

With government consent, influential and even state-linked Sunni clerics in the Gulf in recent years urged men to join rebels in Syria and drummed up donations for the Syrian cause in campaigns in mosques, online and on TV. The funds went to numerous Syrian rebel factions, but some are believed to have gone to extremist ones like the Islamic State.

David Cohen, of the U.S. Treasury Department, put the amounts raised in the hundreds of millions. Some of that went to legitimate humanitarian purposes, but much went the rebels, including extremist groups, Cohen — who is the under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence — said in a speech earlier this year. He did not provide more precise figures.