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Leading Saudi warns of violent reaction against war

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia—A leading Saudi political and religious figure warned Monday that the United States will be greeted with "destruction and trouble" if it invades Iraq without new authority from the U.N. Security Council.

Sheikh Saleh bin Hameed, speaker of the Shura Council, which advises the Saudi monarchy, said U.S. actions in Iraq would undermine international law.

The likely reaction has been hinted at in global anti-war demonstrations and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's threats to strike back at U.S. interests worldwide, the sheikh said in an interview with Knight Ridder.

"It will be a mass of destruction and trouble to the U.S. during the war and after the war," he said.

The reaction will be worldwide, he said. "It's not going to be specifically on the Muslim side."

Nonetheless, many Arab governments are bracing themselves for potential political violence from populations that almost unanimously oppose a U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Saudi Arabia is in a particularly ticklish position because it hosts U.S. armed forces and is quietly giving significant support to the war effort.

Most Saudi and Western observers predict that unrest in the kingdom, where political life is tightly controlled, will be limited to sporadic incidents of anti-Western violence.

But some analysts do not rule out broader protests that could rattle the Saudi monarchy.

A group of 32 Saudi clerics and Islamic scholars issued a statement Saturday saying it would be "a grave sin" for individuals and governments to cooperate "directly or indirectly" with a U.S.-led attack on Iraq.

The statement apparently lacked the formal standing of a "fatwa," or religious edict.

Bin Hameed, a member of the Senior Ulema Council of religious scholars and former imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, said he knew of no fatwa from Saudi clerics regarding the war.

However, last week in Egypt, Al-Azhar University, one of Islam's principal centers of learning, issued a statement saying it is Muslims' duty to oppose a U.S. invasion.

"Jihad against the Crusader forces becomes the individual duty of every Muslim if foreign forces were to start the aggression," said the statement by the university's Islamic Research Academy.

Saudi Arabia's deputy defense minister, Prince Khalid bin Sultan, said Saturday that the country's armed forces were prepared to protect Saudi Arabia's security. It was unclear if the statement was aimed at potential external aggressors, internal militants or both.

The Saudi monarchy's rule is based largely on its role as chief protector of Islam, a role that could be called into question by a conflict in Iraq.

"I think they're worried about internal instability," said a senior U.S. official. "The Islamic legitimacy of the regime could ... be questioned by some of the extremists."

"There's a risk of some temporary backlash on the issue," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Bin Hameed was appointed last year as speaker of the Shura Council, whose 120 male members are chosen by the king. The 10-year-old body has gradually increased in influence, although its role remains strictly advisory.

Saudi intellectuals and reformists have called for council members to be elected, although that seems unlikely to happen soon.

Bin Hameed, in an interview at the council building between morning and afternoon sessions, made no threats against the United States.

But he said President Bush's unilateralist policies were harming American interests abroad.

"It shouldn't be `either to be with us or against us,'" he said. "The U.S. should be more accepting of (other) people's thoughts and ideas."

Bush's promise to move forward on an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan does not appear to have mollified opponents of his Iraq policy here.

The announcement was a ploy to ease pressure on Arab governments and defuse popular opposition in the region to U.S. policy, said attorney Mohsen al Awajy, a critic of the Saudi monarchy.

"He just raised the old carrot, which is plastic. It's not a real carrot," al Awajy said. "It means nothing to us."

"I'm quite worried" about the impact of a U.S. invasion of Iraq, he said. "The people are fed up. The situation has reached an intolerable" state.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.