Wed, Jun 02, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Questions linger after Saudi terror attack

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , KHOBAR, SAUDI ARABIA

The Iraqi-born American engineer stood listening to two of the four terrorists who had attacked his luxurious residential compound in this Persian Gulf oil center wrangling over his fate.

"He's an American, we should shoot him," he recalled the younger of the two as arguing. He looked about 18 and was wearing desert camouflage.

"We don't shoot Muslims," responded the older man, perhaps 25 with wispy facial hair.

The argument seesawed back and forth for several minutes, both men displaying a certain calm determination. The engineer had a stark example of just how determined they were because a few yards away lay the body of a Swede he knew, oozing blood. Two other militants cradled guns as they paced nearby.

The engineer stood there silently, hoping, praying the older man would prevail.

"I was on the borderline," he said, "but finally the older one said, `We are not going to shoot you.'"

Instead, they gave him a brief lecture about the merits of Islam and their cause, then tried to make him point out the houses of non-Muslim neighbors. He lied and said he had only recently moved there.

The engineer, who has a fringe of black hair and gold-rimmed glasses, only wanted to be identified by his adopted name of Mike because three of the four gunmen remained at large on Monday. He remains too nervous even to have his current home mentioned.

While the 242 residents rescued from the upscale Oasis compound here were departing the country as quickly as possible, the way the hostage drama ended Sunday, with three militants escaping and with 22 people dead and 25 wounded, left more questions than answers in the heart of the kingdom's oil industry along the Persian Gulf.

Many Saudis and expatriates wondered aloud whether the gunmen and the police had struck a deal, speculating about how it was possible that the militants could escape from a walled compound surrounded by hundreds of police officers.

"It makes me very nervous," said Ismail Rahim, a 33-year-old Saudi computer technician.

Mike, the 45-year-old Iraqi-American engineer, said he hadn't expect an attack to succeed inside the heavily guarded compound.

"I mean, until the very last minute I thought the terrorists were security guards," he said.

After deciding not to shoot him, the men tried to justify their cause.

"They told me, `We are here because we want to promote Islam, we don't want non-Muslims to come to our country, we are promoting a Muslim cause,'" Mike recalled.

The gunmen let him go, apologizing as he left that they had searched his house and that one of them had bled on his carpet. Mike went home and gathered some neighbors, calling the American Embassy and the Saudi police to sound the alarm.

He said the police eventually sent around three armored personnel carriers to rescue him and some 15 neighbors.

Since Mike got out, the calls have poured in from friends as far away as Dearborn, Michigan, as well as from family still living in Najaf, Iraq, and from his brother in Baghdad.

"He told me I should come there, it's safer," Mike said.

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