Saudis on Alert at Iraq Border for Conflict Spillover

Saudi Arabia is deploying men and high-tech machinery to boost vigilance along its 800 kilometer (500-mile) northern border with Iraq, where it faces security threats from both sides in a deepening sectarian conflict.

The National Guard and the Ministry of Defense sent an extra 1,000 men each, while border patrols have been increased and helicopters deployed to the area, General Faleh al-Subaie, commander of the Saudi Border Guard in the north, said in the city of Arar. That’s the command post for the Arar crossing station, about 60 kilometers away, where fences and 7 meter-high sand berms separate OPEC’s two largest oil producers.

Al-Subaie’s forces monitor the border from observation towers with cameras and motion detectors, part of a $3.4 billion security system. At the headquarters in Arar, the capital of the Northern Border province, computer screens show radar sweeping territory for vehicles or other signs of illegal activity, while along the border, guards in bulletproof vests patrol in trucks with machine guns mounted on the back.

Saudi Arabia has ramped up security to prevent attacks from Sunni Islamist militants, who have already seized large swaths of territory in northern and western Iraq, and from Shiite militias who are aligned with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Iraq’s deepening sectarian conflict has raised concerns that the region’s biggest economy may be targeted by either group.

‘Worst Fears’

The unrest has “confirmed the Saudis’ worst fears about lingering instability and sectarianism in Iraq,” said Fahad Nazer, a political analyst at JTG Inc., a consultancy based in Vienna, Virginia. “It makes perfect sense that the Saudis would reinforce the border.”

Some Sunni groups have criticized Saudi Arabia, a Sunni monarchy, for its ties with the U.S., while Shiites in Iraq have blamed it for supporting militants.

Ties between Saudi Arabia and Iraq have been strained since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Sunni-Muslim majority Saudi Arabia has links with Iraq’s Sunni minority, who dominated the government before the fall of Saddam Hussein and now complain of discrimination under Maliki’s Shiite leadership.

There’s no Saudi embassy in Baghdad, and little commercial contact between the two countries. The customs and immigration buildings were closed when reporters visited the Arar border crossing on July 14 during a trip organized by the Interior Ministry. The crossing is open only during the Hajj pilgrimage.

“Cars, cameras and men have been increased,” al-Subaie said in his office in Arar city on July 14. “We are ready to protect the country.”

‘All the Time’

At a Saudi post along the border, trucks mounted with machine guns were lined up outside. Iraqi forces were visible from the last position in Saudi territory. “We are watching the Iraqis all the time,” said Captain Fares al-Bukhairi.

The Saudi government spent $3.4 billion to build the northern border security system, the Jeddah-based Arab News reported last month, without saying where it got the information. The hi-tech surveillance is focused on a border that’s demarcated by three fences and two sand berms, with signs warning people from entering the no-man’s-land between the countries.

Even with the increased security, threats remain. Three rockets were fired at the border area on July 7, landing close to a housing complex for border guards near Arar. The craters they left are still visible, and pieces of shrapnel are spread across the sand. The rockets were Grad-type Katyushas, according to al-Subaie.

“We aren’t exactly sure” who fired the rockets, said Captain Sultan al-Mutairi, who works in the intelligence department gathering information on the border. The perpetrators want to create problems with Iraq, he said.

A few days before the rocket attack, Islamist militants killed four Saudi soldiers near the Yemen border, and two of the attackers blew themselves up in a suicide strike on a Saudi intelligence building, according to the Interior Ministry.

The incident has made border security “an even bigger priority,” said Nazer, who also worked as an analyst at the Saudi embassy in Washington.