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Al Qaeda blamed in blast

Saudis see message in attack; 17 dead

AMMAN, Jordan -- Militants linked to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network were blamed by Saudi Arabian and US authorities yesterday for a car bombing that killed at least 17 people and injured about 120 at a residential compound for foreigners in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

Analysts and investigators suggested that the targeting of the compound, home to well-off Arab professionals who worked as executives in foreign-owned companies, represented a potential widening of the militants' war on Western interests in Saudi Arabia -- and on the ruling Saudi royal family.

The bombing, which reduced several buildings in the compound on the capital's edge to piles of smoking rubble, occurred on the heels of intelligence warnings of attacks against foreign interests in the kingdom -- particularly Western ones -- and followed a series of sharp confrontations in recent days between government forces and suspected militants.

"The people who did this, and I'm very sure they are commanded by Al Qaeda, can't find a way to get at the targets they want to hit," said a knowledgeable Saudi official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "We have been putting more and more pressure on them, and by hitting a soft target like this one, they are sending a message that they are motivated to strike and very much capable of doing so."

US Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, who was on a scheduled trip in Riyadh to hold talks with senior government officials, said he was "personally quite sure" that Al Qaeda militants were behind the attack Saturday night "because this attack bears the hallmark of them."

"I can't say that last night's attack was the only or last attack," Armitage told reporters. "My view is that these Al Qaeda terrorists -- and I believe it was Al Qaeda -- would prefer to have many such events."

Western counterintelligence agencies have been cooperating for some time with the Saudi government, which launched a wide-ranging crackdown on suspected anti-Western militants following deadly car bombings May 12 that also targeted housing compounds where foreigners lived. Thirty-five people, including nine attackers, died in those blasts.

Saudi police officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the fact that the same method was employed in both attacks -- volleys of gunfire unleashed before at least one suicide car bomber rammed his way in -- and the similarity in the type of explosives used pointed to Al Qaeda, which was also suspected in the May bombings.

Among the dead were a number of women and at least five children, hospital officials said. US State Department spokeswoman Amanda Batt said an undetermined number of Americans were among the wounded, although she said no American was seriously hurt.

Many of the victims had gathered near midnight Saturday for the late-night feasts that are traditionally held during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when observant Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, or were out in the streets, greeting neighbors and shopping for food and drink for all-night parties.

The US Embassy in Riyadh, which had closed its doors indefinitely just one day before the bombing in response to what officials described as credible threats of an imminent attack, dispatched a team to survey the site of the bombing.

The attack, a powerful initial explosion and at least one secondary blast, took place less than 3 miles from the heavily-fortified diplomatic quarter outside Riyadh where nearly all foreign embassies, and diplomats' residences, are located. Members of the royal family also live nearby.

A month ago, a tape attributed to bin Laden, Al Qaeda's Saudi-born leader, urged more such attacks against Western interests. Bin Laden is a sworn enemy of the Saudi royal family, saying it has betrayed Islam by allowing foreign troops in the country that is home to the most sacred Muslim sites.

The latest attack sent a ripple of fear through the kingdom's large expatriate community, which includes at least 35,000 Americans. Business people and diplomats from several Western countries held formal and informal gatherings yesterday to exchange information and try to assess the level of threat, according to a Western diplomat.

Ordinary Saudis expressed shock and revulsion at an attack aimed at Muslims during Ramadan, the holiest month in the Muslim calendar and a time of fasting, prayer, and alms-giving.

The lushly planted compound, dotted with spacious villas, housed large numbers of Americans a few years ago, but nearly all of its approximately 200 homes are now occupied by Arabs of various nationalities, together with smaller numbers of Europeans, diplomats said.

There was initial speculation that the bombers believed they were striking at a predominantly Western enclave. But analysts and investigators yesterday discounted that theory, saying it was widely known that few Westerners lived there.

Several law enforcement officials suggested that the bombing was not the result of outdated intelligence on the bombers' part, but was deliberately meant to intimidate Arabs seen as cooperating with Western interests and also as engaging in what is perceived by many conservative Muslims as a repulsive lifestyle.

Within foreigners' residential compounds such as the one that was targeted, many aspects of daily life stand in sharp contrast to the austere Saudi social mores that prevail outside the walls. Men and women mix socially, alcohol is often available, and both sexes share the swimming pool -- all practices that are anathema to religious fundamentalists.

In recent months, the Saudi government has come under increasing pressure from the Bush administration to crack down on extremist groups to which it has given tacit support in the past, particularly prior to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals.

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