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Saudis say lifestyle was under scrutiny
( 2003-11-13 15:52) (Agencies)

Residents of the mainly Arab residential compound attacked by suspected al-Qaeda suicide bombers said Wednesday they knew their Westernized lifestyle was under scrutiny they'd received a surprise visit from Saudi religious police suspicious that men and women were mixing at a party.

The choice of target in the attack, which killed 17 people, mostly Arabs and Muslims, has baffled many in the region and indicates al-Qaeda's rage may be directed as much at Muslims seen as having slipped from the religion's true path as at Western "infidels."

A Saudi policeman searches the trunk of a car at a checkpoint near the diplomatic compound where most foreign embassies are located in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Nov. 12, 2003. [AP]
Saudi and U.S. officials have blamed Saturday's attack on Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda, the militant Muslim terror network blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks and a sworn enemy of the Saudi ruling family, which it accuses of being insufficiently Islamic and too close to the United States.

On Tuesday, a purported al-Qaeda operative claimed responsibility for Saturday's bombing, saying in an e-mail that al-Qaeda believed "working with Americans and mixing with them" was forbidden. The e-mail was sent to the London-based Arabic weekly Al-Majalla.

Most of the residents of the Muhaya compound were Lebanese. Seven Lebanese were among the dead; other victims came from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Sudan.

Muhaya was typical of compounds housing members of the large contingent of foreign workers in Saudi Arabia: a place where non-Saudis could escape rules banning alcohol and mixing of men and women in public and requiring women to cloak and veil themselves when outside their homes.

Muhaya had a coffee shop where residents of both sexes chatted over water pipes and watched foreign movies and other entertainment on a big screen television. It was located next to a pool where women swam in bikinis.

Agents of the Saudi religious police the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice roam Saudi streets and shopping malls berating or even manhandling those who violate the social code. Its chief holds the rank of Cabinet minister in a kingdom where the royal family retains power in part with the support of conservative religious authorities.

Some Saudis chafe at the religious restrictions. Saturday's bombings and similar attacks in Riyadh in May have sparked debate about whether the strict form of Islam preached in Saudi Arabia fosters intolerance and extremism.

Seven bearded, robed religious police officers visited the Muhaya compound three months ago, saying they had reports of an "un-Islamic" party being held there, residents told The Associated Press on Wednesday. The religious police scuffled with compound guards who barred their entry until the compound owner arrived. During the delay, residents of both sexes slipped out of the complex coffee shop.

The religious police were eventually allowed in and headed straight for the coffee shop. They left after finding it closed.

The Associated Press placed several calls Wednesday to the religious police, but the calls were unanswered.

Muhaya residents said religious police had visited about four years earlier, also saying they had heard a party was being held.

Residents said most compound parties are birthday gatherings for children. They said some residents may have alcohol in their homes, but it was never consumed in public.

One resident, who gave only his first name, Rashid, said he always wondered whether compound activities were being watched from the surrounding mountains. Some residents of the compound, located in a ravine, believe the attackers came from the mountains.

Saudi investigators say at least one attacker was in a bomb-packed vehicle, while others may have entered on foot. The attackers first exchanged fire with security guards, then drove in a vehicle painted with police insignia and blew it up.

The Saudi daily Okaz reported investigators were trying to determine the identity of the suspected attacker in the vehicle through DNA analysis of body parts.

Saudi Arabia's top Muslim cleric, Sheik Abdul-Aziz bin Al al-Sheik, decried the attacks, saying in comments carried by the official Saudi Press Agency: "The sanctity of Muslim blood is known in Islamic law, and unjust shedding of that blood is one of the greatest sins."

Saudi Arabia's top police official, Interior Minister Prince Nayef, said his forces were pursuing suspects but had not yet made any arrests. Earlier, Saudi security officials said suspects were being held in connection with the bombing and others were being questioned.

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