Sat, Dec 23, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Saudi Arabia eyes Iran's rising power with concern

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , RIYADH

At a late-night reading this week, a self-styled poet raised his hand for silence and began a riff on neighboring Iraq, in the old style of Bedouin storytellers.

"Saddam Hussein was a real leader who deserved our support," he began, making up the lines as he went. "He kept Iraq stable and peaceful. And most of all he fought back the Iranians."

"His one mistake was invading Kuwait," he said.

Across the kingdom, in both official and casual conversation, once-quiet concern about the chaos in Iraq and Iran's growing regional influence has burst into the open.

Saudi newspapers now denounce Iran's growing power. Religious leaders here, who view Shiitism as heresy, have begun talking about a "Persian onslaught" that threatens Islam. In the salons and diwans of Riyadh, the "Iranian threat" is raised almost as frequently as the stock market.

"Iran has become more dangerous than Israel itself," said Sheik Musa bin Abdulaziz, editor of the magazine Al Salafi, who describes himself as a moderate Salafi, a fundamentalist Muslim movement. "The Iranian revolution has come to renew the Persian presence in the region. This is the real clash of civilizations."

Many here say a showdown with Iran is inevitable. After several years of a thaw in relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Saudis are increasingly concerned that Iran may build a nuclear bomb and become the de facto superpower in the region.

Sending a message to Iran, the Saudis have announced plans to develop nuclear power. Saudi officials have also publicly welcomed the Iraqi Harith al-Dhari, whose Muslim Scholars Association has links to the insurgency.

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