Private Saudi citizens are giving millions of dollars to Sunni insurgents in Iraq and much of the money is used to buy weapons, including...

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CAIRO, Egypt — Private Saudi citizens are giving millions of dollars to Sunni insurgents in Iraq and much of the money is used to buy weapons, including shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles, according to key Iraqi officials and others familiar with the cash flow.

Saudi government officials deny that any money from their country is being sent to Iraqis fighting the government and the U.S.-led coalition.

But the U.S. Iraq Study Group report said Saudis are a source of funding for Sunni Arab insurgents. Several truck drivers described carrying boxes of cash from Saudi Arabia into Iraq, money they said was headed for insurgents.

Saudi Arabia is a key U.S. ally in the Middle East. The Iraq Study Group report noted that its government has assisted the U.S. military with intelligence on Iraq.

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But Saudi citizens have close tribal ties with Sunni Arabs in Iraq and sympathize with their brethren in what they see as a fight for political control — and survival — with Iraq’s Shiites.

The Saudi government is determined to curb the growing influence of its chief rival in the region, Iran. Iran is closely linked to Shiite parties that dominate the Iraqi government.

Two high-ranking Iraqi officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity, told the AP most of the Saudi money comes from private donations, called zakat, collected for Islamic causes and charities.

Some Saudis appear to know the money is headed to Iraq’s insurgents, but others merely give it to clerics who channel it to anti-coalition forces, the officials said.

In one recent case, an Iraqi official said $25 million in Saudi money went to a top Iraqi Sunni cleric and was used to buy weapons, including Strela, a Russian shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile. The missiles were purchased from someone in Romania, apparently through the black market, he said.

Overall, the Iraqi officials said, money has been pouring into Iraq from oil-rich Saudi Arabia, a Sunni bastion, since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq toppled the Sunni-controlled regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The two Iraqi officials would not name specific Iraqi Sunnis who have received money from Saudi Arabia. But Iraq issued an arrest warrant for Harith al-Dhari, a Sunni opponent of the Iraqi government, shortly after he visited Saudi Arabia in October. He was accused of sectarian incitement.

Saudi officials vehemently deny their country is a major source of financial support for the insurgents.

“There isn’t any organized terror finance, and we will not permit any such unorganized acts,” said Brig. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, a spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry. About a year ago the Saudi government set up a unit to track any “suspicious financial operations,” he said.

But the Iraq Study Group said “funding for the Sunni insurgency comes from private individuals within Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.”

Saudi officials say they cracked down on zakat abuses, under pressure from the United States, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The Iraqi officials, however, said some funding goes to Iraq’s Sunni Arab political leadership, who then disburse it. Other money, they said, is funneled directly to insurgents. The distribution network includes Iraqi truck and bus drivers.

Several drivers interviewed in Middle East capitals said Saudis have been using religious events, like the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and a smaller pilgrimage, as cover for illicit money transfers. Some money, they said, is carried into Iraq on buses with returning pilgrims.

Last month, The New York Times reported that a classified U.S. government report said Iraq’s Sunni Arab insurgency had become self-sufficient financially, raising millions from oil smuggling, kidnapping and Islamic charities. The report did not say whether any money came from Saudi Arabia.

Saudi officials say the kingdom has worked with all sides to reconcile Iraq’s warring factions. They have, they point out, held talks in Saudi Arabia with Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militia is accused of killing Sunnis.

The Iraq Study estimated Muqtada al-Sadr’s private army has as many as 60,000 fighters, and his followers are planted throughout the security forces protecting the Health Ministry and other Iraqi government institutions.

The study group concluded that al-Qaida in Iraq is now largely Iraqi-run and made up of Sunni Arabs. Some 1,300 foreign fighters are believed to support the group or be available to carry out suicide bombings, the study found.

Associated Press writer Katherine Shrader contributed to this report.