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Saudi says Arafat is key to peace

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RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — In a blunt criticism of President Bush, Saudi Arabia's senior intelligence official on Saturday called Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, "a man of peace" and warned that any action by the United States to weaken him would destroy prospects for a peace settlement and have serious repercussions for the kingdom.

In a wide-ranging interview, Prince Nawwaf bin Abdul Aziz, the kingdom's director of the intelligence services, also acknowledged that after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the vast majority of Saudi young adults felt considerable sympathy for the cause of the Saudi-born terrorist Osama bin Laden, even though they rejected the attacks in New York and Washington.

A classified U.S. intelligence report taken from a mid-October Saudi intelligence survey of educated Saudis between the ages of 25 and 41 concluded that 95 percent of them supported bin Laden's cause, according to a senior administration official with access to intelligence reports.

Nawwaf confirmed the existence of the survey but did not address the level of support. He attributed the support to what he called the feelings of the people against the United States, largely, he said, because of its unflinching support of Israel against the Palestinians.

Although he insisted that Saudi Arabia had no intention of asking the United States to withdraw its military presence from the kingdom, the prince said Saudi Arabia would not support a U.S. military campaign against Iraq or any other Arab or Muslim country.

The prince, who is in his 70s, is a half brother of both the ailing King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler.

The crown prince has repeatedly called on the administration to become more engaged in resolving the Palestinian crisis and has harshly criticized Washington for its refusal to put pressure on Israel as well as on the Palestinians.

Nawwaf said that if Arafat left the scene, no other Palestinian would come forward to make peace. "If the United States is going to make it worse by cutting ties with Arafat, who will come to make a peace settlement?" he asked. "Do you think anybody will do so? Or do you want to destroy the process to reach a peace settlement?

"I'm telling the Americans: You can accuse Arafat of anything except that he is not a man of peace."