Raid on US consulate puts pressure on relations with Saudi Arabia

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A raid yesterday by Islamic militants on the American consulate in Jeddah left 12 people dead and underlined the continuing instability that threatens the Saudi monarchy and its uneasy but vital alliance with the United States.

No Americans died in the assault, but the carefully planned attack on one of the most heavily protected foreign diplomatic missions showed that an 18-month crackdown by the Saudi authorities has failed to stamp out violent opposition.

Speaking after a White House meeting with Iraq's interim president Sheikh Ghazi al-Yawar, President George Bush said the attack proved "terrorists are still on the move", and trying to force the US to pull out of Saudi Arabia and Iraq. "They want us to grow timid and weary in the face of their willingness to kill ... innocent people," Mr Bush declared. "That's why these elections in Iraq [scheduled for 30 January] are very important."

The attack began when assailants threw explosives at the gate of the consulate and forced their way into the compound. In the ensuing gun battle, at least nine people were reported dead. They included five members of the consulate's local staff and four Saudi security personnel. Of the five attackers, three were killed and two captured, the Saudi interior ministry said. In addition, several American citizens in the compound suffered minor injuries, the State Department said.

"This is not an isolated incident, this is a big deal," William Cohen, defence secretary in the second Clinton administration, said, noting that despite the proclaimed crackdown in which hundreds of alleged militants have been killed and arrested, the radical opposition still has the capacity to strike.

The Saudis, however, insist that attacks like yesterday's are the desperate gesture of a movement in its death throes. An interior ministry statement described the attack as the work of a "deviant bunch", its standard description for al- Qa'ida, led by the Saudi-born Osama bin Laden. But on Islamic militant web sites, the attack was praised widely, with one contributor hailing what he called "the destruction of a bastion of atheism".

The most serious consequence, however, could be that the foreigners who play a key role in the Saudi economy, particularly in the oil industry, will be further deterred from staying in the country - exactly as the militants would like.