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Blast stirs pressure for Saudi reforms

Support for militants expected to erode

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- The bombing that killed 17 people in the Saudi capital is intensifying pressure for democratic reform in the country and is likely to undercut the militants' support among Arabs who previously sympathized to some degree with their goals.

While some have rejoiced over Saturday's suicide car bombing, many in the Arab world are shocked that it targeted Arabs and Muslims.

The bombing -- the work of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network, according to US and Saudi officials -- hit a housing compound in Riyadh that the attackers must have known houses Arab families. As a result, said Saudi political analyst Dawood al-Shirian, many Saudis who had some sympathy for bin Laden or saw justification for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, on the United States are beginning to question his goals. "When they see the images of dead children, when they see the images of a dead mother, if one of their own dies, they will turn away from the militants," Shirian said. "That's what will isolate the militants."

On the streets of the capital one evening this week, after breaking their daily Ramadan fast, some Muslims expressed fear that such attacks would sully Islam or encourage its enemies.

Khalid al-Sultan, 32, an employee at a catering company, called the latest attack "un-Islamic." Abdul-Rahman al-Sheikh, a 41-year-old businessman, said Al Qaeda militants are "a threat to humanity and our peaceful religion."

But that feeling was not universal. In Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, many Arabs have fallen back on conspiracy theories about America and Israel engineering the bombing, or at least allowing it happen, to discredit Islam.

"Those who did it can't be Muslims. Why not Americans?" lawyer Fatma Lasheen said in Cairo. "The American Embassy closed the day of the operation. And if not, why didn't they foil this operation if they knew about it? Don't you think it is strange?"

The US Embassy in Riyadh had closed because of fears of an imminent attack, but US officials said the intelligence did not say where it might happen.

Saudis who support the attack have spoken on condition of anonymity, lest they attract the attention of the government as it arrests suspected militants. But they have not hid their pride or their certainty that Al Qaeda was responsible for the attack.

One Saudi in his 30s phoned a reporter and said he was "ecstatic." He said he wanted life in the kingdom, home of Islam's most revered holy places, to return to the way it was in the days of the Prophet Mohammed. Another Saudi, also in his 30s, said people wish attacks happened every night but would prefer they targeted Americans and other Westerners. Mohsen al-Awajy, a Saudi lawyer with contacts among extremists, said that the militants' following will decline but that radicalism and violence will persist until the authoritarian Saudi system loosens up to "provide the atmosphere for people to cooperate with it."Saudi officials have been saying for months that the ruling Al Saud family knows change is needed. But since the bombing, some officials speaking on condition of anonymity are conceding that change must come faster.

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