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In Tightly Controlled Kingdom, Level of Discontent Hard to Gauge

Mideast: Experts see attack on U.S. military as product of religious and political opposition to ruling family.


CAIRO — In retrospect, Communique 43, put out three weeks ago by a London-based Saudi opposition group, looks prophetic:

"CDLR warns that the United States is viewed, by the public at large, as an accomplice of the Saudi tyranny . . . and as an unjust racist imperial power in general," said the statement from the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights, distributed worldwide by the group's sophisticated fax network.

"Many young, disappointed men and women may resort to violence and bloodshed, which cannot be prevented by harsh 'security' measures."

Although there is no credible claim of responsibility yet for the truck bomb that ripped apart a housing complex for U.S. military personnel near Dhahran on Tuesday night, killing 19 Americans, there was little doubt among experts familiar with the desert kingdom that the violence was an outgrowth of extreme religious and political opposition to the House of Saud, the 64-year-old ultraconservative dynasty that controls the world's largest known oil reserves.

In a tightly controlled society, where political parties do not exist and punishment for lawbreaking is as swift and sure as the executioner's sword, it is difficult to judge how widespread are the feelings of dissatisfaction with the government and its relationship with the United States.

The consensus among Western experts is that the kingdom is under no immediate threat, but the situation bears watching. In two dramatic attacks in less than a year, the shadowy extremists have shown that they are potent enough to shatter the monarchy's former reputation as an oasis of stability in the roiling Middle East.

What makes the latest assaults even more disturbing is that they take place during a sensitive transitional time for the kingdom, when the aging and ailing absolute monarch of the last 14 years, King Fahd, 75, is believed to be about to cede power to his half brother, Crown Prince Abdullah, who is 73.

Compared to Fahd, who forged strong ties to the West, Abdullah is a pious traditionalist less enamored of the country's close military and political connections with the United States and more inclined toward the Arab world.

The U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia was introduced quietly in the 1970s and 1980s but came out into the open with the Persian Gulf War--which at its height saw more than half a million foreign troops on Saudi soil to launch the liberation of Kuwait in 1991.

Now there are about 5,000 U.S. troops deployed in the country and the U.S. 5th Fleet cruises offshore, guarding the kingdom's oil riches against the twin security threats posed by Iraq and Iran.

But even this relatively small number of U.S. service personnel, kept isolated in the east of the kingdom, is seen by the political opposition as a desecration of the Muslim holy land and an infringement on the country's sovereignty. It has become one of the main causes of criticism against the ruling family from dissidents abroad, who claim that the United States is propping up a corrupt oligarchy to control the region's oil wealth.

Both arguments, political and religious, are dismissed by supporters of the Saudi government. "In the West . . . [opposition groups] fight for human rights and champion democracy. . . . At home they feed terrorism," said Othman Omeir, editor of Asharq al Awsat, a government-linked Saudi newspaper.

The Nov. 13 bombing of a U.S.-run military training center in the capital, Riyadh, in which seven people were killed, was the most serious terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia's history. The government initially focused its suspicions on foreign subversion, but the four men apprehended turned out to be Saudis, not known to be affiliated with any major group.

Three unknown groups claimed responsibility for the attack last year, and that pattern was repeated Wednesday with a call claiming the latest bombing was the work of an unknown organization, "The Legion of the Martyr Abdullah al Huzaifi."

Whether any of the groups actually exist, some insight into the thinking of the regime's radical opponents can be gleaned from the most prominent Saudi dissident, Mohammed Masari, who leads CDLR.

Interviewed Wednesday by the daily newsletter Mideast Mirror, he denied he was involved in Tuesday's blast but warned the U.S. that it will continue to suffer casualties unless the "illegitimate" U.S. presence in his country is removed.

"I imagine that they [the bombers] now consider themselves in a declared state of war with the Americans," he said.

Careful to indicate that he himself is not advocating violence, Masari--whom Saudi officials tried unsuccessfully to have deported from Britain last year--said that violence can also be moral. "Another point of view of the Islamic law . . . which has its own respectability [is] that a foreign force which is not called in by a legitimate regime is illegitimately there and . . . a target."

If Americans stay in Saudi Arabia to defend U.S. financial interests and control the oil fields, they must "pay the price," he said. "They have to pay 20, 30, 100, 200, 1,000 dead."

Such sentiments show how there is "fire simmering under the sand" in Saudi Arabia, said Riad Rayyes, a Lebanese-based authority on the Persian Gulf. That the perpetrators of both terrorist attacks chose U.S. installations, rather than easier civilian targets, shows a high level of organization and confidence, suggesting the attackers may be linked to the moujahedeen, Arabs who volunteered to take part in the war in Afghanistan against the Soviet army in the early 1980s, he said.

Omeir, the editor of Asharq al Awsat, denies that the political opposition in Saudi society is very widespread.

But the government offers no legal outlet for opposition, and neither it nor its opponents show any sign of changing their ways.

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