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Saudis Hold Forty Suspects in Dhahran Truck Bombing

By R. Jeffrey Smith
The Washington Post

Saudi Arabian security officials are holding about 40 Saudi citizens alleged to have been involved in the truck bombing of a U.S. military housing complex in Dhahran in June, and have traced the attack to a broad conspiracy that the Saudis are convinced was backed by the government of Iran.

The suspects, who have been secretly imprisoned for at least three months, include the man who Saudi officials say drove the explosives-laden vehicle that was detonated just beyond the complex's fence and killed 19 U.S. Air Force service members.

Knowledgeable sources familiar with the intensive probe of the Khobar Towers bombing said this week that the Saudi portion of the inquiry is now complete and that what remains of the Saudi investigation is being conducted outside the kingdom.

The Saudi government has obtained confessions from some of those arrested as well as other evidence that it says implicates Iran as the instigator and sponsor of the attack and also suggests potential advance knowledge or involvement by Syria, a supposed Saudi ally, the sources said.

The new charges of Iranian involvement come as Western diplomats and Arab officials in the Middle East say they see increasing signs that the radical Islamic government in Tehran is providing backing for terrorists targeting pro-Western governments in the region.

But several U.S. officials said they had not reached any conclusions yet about who was behind the June bombing in Dhahran.

Saudi security officials have not yet fully briefed Washington on their findings, partly out of concern that the Clinton administration in the days before the election might rush to retaliate in a way that the Saudis would view as harmful. The Saudis have privately advised senior U.S. officials that they want to participate in any decision on how to respond to the evidence.

All of those arrested for the crime are Shiite Muslim members of a little-known group known as Saudi Hezbollah. A knowledgeable source said Saudi officials have concluded the group is a wing of the Lebanese-based Hezbollah, or Party of God, a radical Islamic organization that has long been funded, trained and equipped by Iran.

Western diplomats and other analysts in the Middle East question whether Saudi Hezbollah has such close links to the Lebanese group. But the Saudi official view is that it had as many as 500 Saudi members and matches similar Hezbollah groups established by Iran elsewhere in the region with the aim of destabilizing national governments.

Operatives of Lebanese-based Hezbollah have been linked to numerous terrorist attacks on U.S. personnel in the Middle East, including the October 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 people, and the group has been looked at closely by U.S. officials probing the Dhahran blast. U.S. officials said Washington has not yet reached conclusions about Hezbollah's role.

Still at large, the sources said, are a Lebanese man who Saudi officials have alleged built the sophisticated bomb that blew up the fuel truck in front of the Khobar Towers complex on June 25, as well as the Saudi citizen who headed the country's Hezbollah group. These two are the subjects of a quiet manhunt in the Middle East by Saudi and allied intelligence operatives.

A third man who Saudi investigators have concluded played a key role in the conspiracy and who fled to Tehran after the explosion was apprehended in Syria several weeks ago at Saudi Arabia's request, the sources said. But the man was reported by the Syrian government several days later to have died while in the custody of the Syrian security force, provoking enormous U.S. and Saudi frustration.

That development in turn has raised new questions among investigators working on the case about a possible Syrian connection to the bombing. Syria exercises military control over territory in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley where Saudi officials have concluded key parts of the bomb were assembled. Iranian agents who conducted surveillance of U.S. military facilities in Saudi Arabia before the blast are known to have entered the country at the Syrian border.

Also, some of the Saudi citizens implicated in the conspiracy are said to have obtained false passports to travel to and from Iran from the Iranian Embassy in Damascus, the Syrian capital.

"How could they do this without Syria knowing what was going on?" one knowledgeable source asked.