JIDDA, Saudi Arabia -- Lobbing grenades, militants invaded Jidda's heavily guarded US Consulate yesterday, attacking staffers and others in the compound until Saudi security forces stormed in. Nine people, none American, were killed in the attack, which was claimed by Al Qaeda and showed how vulnerable Saudi Arabia remains to Islamic extremist violence.
The bold assault, the worst in the kingdom since May, indicated that a fierce crackdown waged by Saudi security forces has not completely put down Al Qaeda in the native land of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.
The group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula said the attack was part of its "war on the crusaders and the Jews . . . [aimed at] getting them out of the Arabian peninsula. The Mujahideen are continuing on their path . . . they will not weaken . . . but will be patient."
In a statement posted on a militant website, the group said the attack had been named the blessed Fallujah battle, referring to the former insurgent stronghold in Iraq invaded last month by US troops.
It also said it was carried out by the "unit of the martyr Abu Anas al-Shami," who was a spiritual adviser to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the most feared terrorist in Iraq. There was no way to confirm the claim.
President Bush said the attack showed "terrorists are still on the move," trying to intimidate Americans and force the United States to withdraw from Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
The US Embassy in Riyadh and the consulate in Dhahran were closed to the public for two days, as was the Jidda consulate. The embassy urged the thousands of Americans in the country -- many of whom already live under extraordinarily tight security -- to "exercise utmost security precautions."
The assault yesterday began when the attackers sneaked on foot behind an embassy car that was entering the consulate through a gate, then lobbed grenades at guards to take control of the gate area, said Brigadier General Mansour al-Turki, the Interior Ministry spokesman. The attackers also used incendiary grenades designed to create fires and send up heavy smoke, he said.
Plumes of black smoke could be seen rising shortly after the attack. About 20 minutes after fighting their way in, the attackers telephoned emergency services, claimed to be holding up to 17 people hostage, and warned Saudi forces not to attack, said Adel al-Jubeir, foreign affairs adviser to Crown Prince Abdullah.
Those held at gunpoint were mostly either in the courtyard-like area to apply for visas or were employees who worked in that area, a senior Saudi official in Washington said.
As the call was ending, Saudi security forces stormed the area and fought a short gunbattle, the official said.
Jubeir said the fight was over within three or four minutes, and the troops then worked for about three hours after that searching the compound to ensure it was secure. He denied earlier reports that the standoff lasted four hours.
Employees rushed into a safe area, and the attackers never made it inside the consulate's buildings, Turki said. He denied anyone was held hostage, but said the terrorists did attack people they encountered in the courtyard area.
Five consulate employees, all non-Americans, were killed and another four injured, the State Department said. Three of the five attackers also died in the shoot-out, and the other two were wounded and captured, the Saudi Interior Ministry said.
A Saudi security official, quoted on the Saudi television station al-Ikhbariya, said one of the wounded attackers later died in custody. The official said that besides the attackers, the five dead were a Yemeni, a Sudanese, a Filipino, a Pakistani, and a Sri Lankan. The official said 13 people were wounded, including five Saudi security men.
"We could hear the gunshots outside, but we didn't know what was going on," said a consulate employee who rushed to the safe area.
Jubeir said officials had suspected an attack was coming. "We had indications that led us to increase the level of alert and to beef up security in Jidda and in other areas," said Jubeir, noting that the government was at a higher threat level.
After the militants shot their way into the entrance of the US Consulate, the US Marines on duty apparently retreated into the consulate to protect the US diplomats inside, said a State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity. The official said Marines followed proper procedure. Saudi National Guardsmen then fought the militants.
The Marines did not fire at the militants, the official said.
The militants spent several minutes inside the entrance destroying a US flag, giving Marines more time to secure the consulate offices.
While the attack would have threatened the lives of US diplomats if they were in the entrance hall or outside on the grounds, the State Department official said that such a small group of militants would have needed a huge explosive device to get to the Americans inside the building.
The consulate, led by Consul General Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, was operating with a skeletal staff. All nonessential staff, and all dependents of diplomats, had left several months ago after previous attacks on Americans in the area.
The State Department now must decide whether it will keep the consulate open. While some in the department probably will argue to close the mission because of the insecurity, others will say that would send the wrong message -- both to terrorist groups and to the extensive American business interests in the area.
"There's a tremendous amount of US business in that area, and if they leave, it would be essentially telling the businesses that the government is abandoning them," the State Department official said.
The attack occurred a week after the deputy leader of Al Qaeda, Zawahri, warned in a videotape that Washington must change its policies or face more attacks by the terrorist group.
Saudi officials attributed the attack to a "deviant" group -- the government's way of identifying Al Qaeda extremists it holds responsible for a string of terror strikes over the past two years.
Saudi and US officials have blamed Al Qaeda for all major militant attacks in the kingdom since May 2003.
The Saudi government has cracked down, arresting and killing many key militants. That has quieted the attacks somewhat. But in May, 22 people were killed, including 19 foreigners, by militants who took over a resort complex in Khobar and held hostages for 25 hours.
In June, militants in Riyadh, the capital, kidnapped and beheaded Paul M. Johnson Jr., an engineer for a US defense company.
The attack yesterday showed that extremists are still capable of carrying out sophisticated strikes despite the government crackdown.
"This was a very hard target to attack, and they pulled it off," said Diaa Rashwan, a Cairo-based specialist on Muslim militants who predicted that the attack would boost morale among extremists. "For the government, this was a security failure. For the militants, this was a military victory."
The Saudi Cabinet quickly convened and issued a statement condemning the attack and reaffirming the government's determination "to fight terrorism in all its aspects and to hunt down its perpetrators until they are rooted out and the society is cleaned of them."
The consulate -- like all US diplomatic buildings and other Western compounds in Saudi Arabia -- has been heavily fortified and guarded since last year's series of bombings against places that house foreigners. Guard posts are located on the corners of the compound and a road open to civilian traffic runs along part of the wall.
In Riyadh, US Embassy spokeswoman Carol Kalin said four of the slain employees had held administrative jobs and the fifth was a private guard.
About 9,000 Americans live in the Jidda consular district, which encompasses western Saudi Arabia from Yemen to Jordan. The population of Jidda is estimated at more than 2 million.
Globe staff reporter John Donnelly contributed to this report. Associated Press writers Tarek Al-Issawi in Dubai and John Solomon in Washington also contributed.