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Saudi Arabia expands its buffer zone with Iraq to hold back 'infiltrators'

Saudi Arabia will maintain an increased 20 kilometre buffer zone on its border with Iraq amid concerns about the IS militant group
Saudi border guards are put through their paces during a training session held in the capital Riyadh (AFP)

Saudi Arabia has expanded a buffer zone along its northern border with Iraq, where a US-led military coalition is bombing Islamic State (IS) group militants, official media said on Tuesday.

Mohammed al-Fahimi, a spokesman for northern region border guards, said "the depth of the border has been increased by 20 kilometres (12 miles)", the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported.

Officers guarding the frontier "called on residents and citizens to stay away from the border areas", it added, without clarifying the previous depth of the border zone.

In early September, the kingdom inaugurated a multi-layered fence, backed by radar and other surveillance tools, along its northern borders.

The project is part of efforts to secure the kingdom's desert frontiers against infiltrators and smugglers, state media reported at the time.

Saudi Arabia shares a border of 800 kilometres with Iraq.

In July 2009 Riyadh signed a deal with European aerospace and defence contractors EADS to build a high-tech security fence along thousands of kilometres of the kingdom's borders, not only in the north.

Since September, Saudi Arabia has been part of the anti-IS coalition, which has been carrying out air strikes against the IS group in Syria. Riyadh has not, however, participated in strikes against IS in Iraq, where the militant group control large areas in the north and west.

Iraqi President Fuad Masum visited Saudi Arabia last week in a sign of warming relations after years of strain with the Sunni-dominated kingdom.

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said in March terrorism in Iraq “originates from Saudi Arabia”.

The oil-rich Gulf State has publicly stated its efforts to stem the rising tide of support for IS among Saudi citizens, including mobilising the grand mufti to say IS is “enemy number one of Islam”.

Thousands of Saudis have gone to fight in Syria since war erupted there in 2011 and in February this year authorities introduced a decree stipulating long prison sentences for anyone who leaves to take part in a foreign conflict.

While reports have suggested the number of Saudis leaving for Syria has slowed since the decree, they continue to play a prominent role in IS violence. Over a 45-day period between September and October 14 of 31 IS suicide attacks in Iraq were carried out by Saudi citizens.

Within the kingdom there has been a groundswell of support for IS, with a surge in pro-IS activity on Twitter detailed by Vocative during the summer. 95 percent of mentions on the hashtag #ABillionMuslimsForTheVictoryOfTheIsis came from Saudi Arabia, according to the news site.

Although IS are not thought to be officially operating in Saudi Arabia at the moment, the killing of several Shiite worshippers in the Eastern Province earlier this month led to activists saying the attackers were likely motivated by the group’s ideology.