Petraeus denies militants cross Saudi/Iraq border but officials admit infiltration
David Edwards and Muriel Kane
Published: Tuesday July 31, 2007

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The top US commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, told Diane Sawyer of ABC's Good Morning America on Monday that jihadis are not crossing the Saudi border into Iraq. However, other sources indicate that the border is far more porous than Petraeus was willing to acknowledge.

Sawyer asked Petraeus about recent reports that "about half of the 60 to 80 foreign fighters coming into Iraq [each month] are coming across Saudi borders," including a large number of suicide bombers. "You have been very hard on the Syrians for letting foreign fighters come in through their borders," she said. "Are the Saudis not doing enough to shut down their borders?"

"I'm not sure that they're coming across the Saudi border," replied Petraeus. "I think what we have found is that it is Saudi citizens and citizens from other countries in North Africa and in the region who are coming through Syria."

When Sawyer asked again, "So you don't see them coming across the Saudi border?" Petraeus responded, more emphatically, "We do not, actually. The Saudis have a reasonably tight grip on the Saudi border, and it is a substantial expanse of desert. You really have to want to be a suicide bomber if you want to come across that expanse of desert that defines the Saudi-Iraq border in western Anbar Province."

Petraeus's explanation echoes that recently offered by the LA Times, which stated on July 15, citing a senior US military officer, that "with its own border with Iraq largely closed, Saudi fighters take what is now an established route by bus or plane to Syria, where they meet handlers who help them cross into Iraq's western deserts."

However, the LA Times also spoke to a US intelligence official in Washington, who said, "People do get across that border. You can always ask, 'Could more be done?' But what are they supposed to do, post a guard every 15 or 20 paces?"

The Jamestown Foundation pointed out last year that "nomadic Bedouin tribes (that have previously been suspected of supporting the insurgency) exist on both sides of the Iraq-Saudi border. These tribes frequently move throughout the vast and unpopulated southern Iraqi desert and maintain clan ties in both Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, these elements intimately know the area and are well versed in avoiding contact with security forces. As such, it is possible that they are assisting in the movement of fighters into Iraq."

In March 2006, Iraqi police announced the capture of an al Qaeda-linked militant who had fled into Iraq with his comrades after an unsuccessful attack on a Saudi oil facility. Last fall, the Director General of the Saudi Border Guard, Talal Anqawi, effectively acknowledged the problem when he told the Arabic daily Asharq Al-Awsat that "the number of infiltrators crossing the borders between Saudi Arabia and Iraq has declined by 30 to 40 percent compared with the past few years."

Despite this, the Saudis appear to be reluctant to take any responsibility for their own citizens' presence in Iraq. Gen. Mansour Turki of the Saudi Interior Ministry told the LA Times, "Saudis are actually being misused. Someone is helping them come to Iraq. Someone is helping them inside Iraq. Someone is recruiting them to be suicide bombers. We have no idea who these people are. ... If you leave Saudi Arabia and go to other places and find somebody who drags them to Iraq, that is a problem we can't do anything about,"

In contrast with General Turki's casual attitude towards Saudi militants heading for Iraq, the Saudis do appear to be extremely concerned with the prospect of refugees, drug smugglers, or seasoned jihadis entering their own country. Last year, they announced plans to spend over half a billion dollars to build a high-tech security fence to seal off the Saudi-Iraqi border. According to a British analyst, "officials fear Iraq has become the same kind of training opportunity for jihadists as Afghanistan was previously."

"There has been an understanding since the invasion [of Iraq] of a movement of Saudi Arabians, though the official figure is relatively modest in terms of the numbers of Saudi nationals going into Iraq," Partrick says. "But over the last year or so there has been some evidence of a movement back of at least some individuals from Iraq into Saudi Arabia across what is a very long border and a very difficult one to police. And, of course, one that is wholly ineffectively policed from the Iraqi side."

According to a story in the Telegraph about the security fence, "the project is being kept so secret that military officials from Centcom, America's central command responsible for Iraq, have been told they cannot inspect the site on 'national security' grounds. ... 'It's being done in true Saudi style,' the source said. 'State-of-the-art equipment and no expense spared.'"

The following video is from ABC's Good Morning America, broadcast on July 30.