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Don't Weaken Arafat, Saudi Warns Bush
ELAINE SCIOLINO . NY Times . 27 january 2002

Prince Nawwaf bin Abdul Aziz, chief of Saudi intelligence, said a U.S. operation in Iraq could backfire.

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, Jan. 26 — In a blunt criticism of President Bush, Saudi Arabia's senior intelligence official today called Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, "a man of peace" and warned that any action by the United States to weaken him would destroy prospects for a peace settlement and have serious repercussions for the kingdom.

In a wide-ranging interview, Prince Nawwaf bin Abdul Aziz, the kingdom's director of the intelligence service, also acknowledged that after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the vast majority of Saudi young adults felt considerable sympathy for the cause of the Saudi-born terrorist Osama bin Laden, even though they rejected the attacks in New York and Washington.

A classified American intelligence report taken from a Saudi intelligence survey in mid-October of educated Saudis between the ages of 25 and 41 concluded that 95 percent of them supported Mr. bin Laden's cause, according to a senior administration official with access to intelligence reports.

Prince Nawwaf confirmed the existence of the survey but did not specify the level of support. He attributed the support to what he called feelings of the people against the United States, largely, he said, because of its unflinching support of Israel against the Palestinians.

Although he insisted that Saudi Arabia had no intention of asking the United States to withdraw its military presence from the kingdom, which Mr. bin Laden has long demanded, the prince said Saudi Arabia would not support an American military campaign against Iraq or any other Arab or Muslim country.

Mr. Bush suggested on Friday that Mr. Arafat was "enhancing terrorism" in the case of a boatload of arms smuggled for use against Israel, but Prince Nawwaf challenged that criticism and warned Mr. Bush not to punish or isolate him.

"All the governments, the people of the region believe that America is supporting Israel whether it is right or wrong, and now if something happens to Yasir Arafat, the feeling against American policy will be stronger," he said. "Anybody will be able to use it to damage American interests in the area. You will put Saudi Arabia in a very bad position, because feelings about the Middle East problem are very strong."

The prince, who is in his 70's, is a half brother of both the ailing King Fahd and of Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler. He spoke in English during the 45-minute interview that began in his headquarters and continued in a car en route to a reception at the residence of the crown prince.

At the reception, held in honor of visiting scholars and intellectuals attending an annual Saudi folk festival, Crown Prince Abdullah was less pointed in his criticism of American foreign policy. Asked by an American journalist what message he would send to Mr. Bush about the war on terrorism, he replied: "My advice to President Bush is to pursue the interests of the United States. This will solve everything."

The crown prince has repeatedly called on the administration to become more engaged in resolving the Palestinian crisis and has harshly criticized Washington for what he sees as its refusal to put pressure on Israel.

For his part, Prince Nawwaf said that if Mr. Arafat left the scene, no other Palestinian would come forward to make peace. "If the United States is going to make it worse by cutting ties with Arafat, who will come to make a peace settlement?" he asked. "Do you think anybody will do so? Or do you want to destroy the process to reach a peace settlement?

"I'm telling the Americans: You can accuse Arafat of anything except that he is not a man of peace."

Prince Nawwaf is among the most trusted advisers of the crown prince. He replaced Prince Turki bin Faisal, who was chief of intelligence for more than 25 years but was suddenly removed from his post last summer.

The interview underscored the widening gap in the perceptions and expectations of each other of Saudi Arabia and the United States following Sept. 11.

On the American side, there is an official line that relations are strong and that the Saudis are cooperating with the criminal investigation and the effort to freeze the assets of Saudi entities that may be supporting terrorism. But there is deep unease, especially among the uniformed military, that the Saudis are constraining the American mission in the Persian Gulf and that American commanders are discussing a possible shrinkage of the military presence in Saudi Arabia.

On the Saudi side, Saudis said in interviews that they expected support from the United States and instead felt that they had been isolated and branded as terrorists.

Saudi Arabia could be the next target of a terror attack, Saudi military officials have told their American counterparts, if both nations appear to be too closely aligned militarily and if the crisis between Israel and Palestinians worsens.

Unwavering support for the Palestinians, despite recent Palestinian attacks against Israeli civilians, is voiced by all levels of society, from government officials and university professors to shopkeepers and teenagers.

Prince Nawwaf said his office had conducted the survey about terrorism "to know about the feeling towards bin Laden, and we can't ignore that there is this feeling."

The survey interviewed educated Saudi men and included industrialists, engineers, doctors and architects, the American official said. Although the official added that it had not been done scientifically, the level of support has surprised both American and Saudi officials.

Prince Nawwaf said sympathy with Mr. bin Laden's cause among Saudis would be lower if a survey were conducted now, after the successful American campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan, where Mr. bin Laden's network, Al Qaeda, was based. "The feeling would be less because since the war the people know the strong feeling of the people of Afghanistan against the Taliban," he said.

Prince Nawwaf did not respond directly to questions about whether there were Qaeda terrorist cells inside the kingdom. But he reiterated Saudi Arabia's opposition to any military expansion of the American terrorist campaign to other countries.

He said an American military operation to overthrow President Saddam Hussein of Iraq "is not going to damage Saddam Hussein," adding: "It will only give Saddam more credit. Perhaps someone is telling you you will finish off Saddam. No, Saddam will be waiting for you."

Even Mr. Hussein's overthrow would not increase regional stability, he said. "If you succeed, you will divide Iraq into three parts," he said. Iraq would be splintered into a Shiite Muslim-run government in the south, a Kurdish-run government in the north and a Sunni-Muslim run government in the center, he said, adding, "I don't think America will support that."

He made no criticism of the American military presence here, but said: "Who said this about ending the military presence? You never heard this from Saudi Arabia."

But he warned the United States not to abuse the friendship or Saudi hospitality that allows the United States to have a military presence but not a permanent base here.

"Some days you say you want to attack Iraq, some days Somalia, some days Lebanon, some days Syria," he said. "Who do you want to attack? All the Arab world? And you want us to support that? It's impossible. It's impossible."