- The Washington Times - Monday, June 21, 2004

The State Department acknowledged yesterday that it fears a “crippling of the Saudi oil industry” if American workers in the kingdom heed its advice to leave the country.

The department has for weeks been warning all Americans to leave Saudi Arabia because of the risk of terrorist attacks. But Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said late last week that it would be a victory for terrorists if all Americans left.

The contradiction confused some Americans, and the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, the capital, has felt compelled to reiterate the official travel advisory.

“Our advice has been and remains that Americans should defer travel to Saudi Arabia, and Americans who are in Saudi Arabia should depart,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday.

At the same time, “We wouldn’t want to see the result of Americans’ departure be a crippling of the oil industry,” he said. “That would be a victory for the terrorists.”

Mr. Boucher said he was expressing concern rather than making a prediction.

“I’m not necessarily saying it would [cripple the industry]. I’m saying I guess it might. It could have an effect,” he said.

The State Department renewed the calls for U.S. citizens to leave the kingdom after the beheading on Friday of Paul M. Johnson Jr., an American engineer held hostage by al Qaeda militants.

Adel al-Jubeir, foreign affairs adviser to Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, criticized the travel advisory during a press conference in Washington, saying the situation in his country is under control.

That same day, Mr. Powell made comments that seemed to contradict his department’s policy.

“It is certainly a concern of ours,” he said of the security situation in Saudi Arabia. “But the people who are there have a pretty good understanding of the risks that they are taking in being there.

“And they tend to be sort of wildcatting kinds of folks in the oil industry. And I think they will do more to protect themselves,” Mr. Powell told radio talk-show host Michael Reagan.

“If they leave, then the terrorists have won. And I don’t think either the Saudis, the Americans, or these brave folks who work in Saudi Arabia want the terrorists to win,” he said.

The Saudi government said it had Mr. Johnson’s body in its possession when it announced his death but later retracted that statement. Security forces continued the search yesterday in several districts and suburbs of Riyadh.

Members of the group that murdered Mr. Johnson said in an account posted on an Islamic extremist Web site Sunday that they had been aided by sympathizers in the Saudi security forces.

“A number of the cooperators who are sincere to their religion in the security apparatus donated those clothes and the police cars. We ask God to reward them and that they use their energy to serve Islam and the mujahideen,” the article said.

Saudi officials disputed the assertion, and Mr. Boucher said yesterday that it was “totally unconfirmed.”

“We know that terrorists have — including people from al Qaeda — have impersonated Saudi police and military in the past,” he said.

“We have no evidence to suggest that Saudi security personnel were in any way complicit with the kidnapping of Mr. Johnson.”

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