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Many Saudis Object to Goverment Stance on Hezbollah

DON GONYEA, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea. After visiting earlier this week, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice flies to Rome for meetings with European leaders and Arab diplomats. Just as she and President Bush are meeting today in Washington with Saudi diplomats, the Saudis will also play an important role in the meetings in Italy. The Saudis have been unusually critical of Hezbollah, charging that the group was reckless in capturing two Israeli soldiers, a move that sparked the current crisis.

NPR's Deborah Amos reports on Saudi reactions to their government stand, from Syria.

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DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

In the summer months, the Syrian resort town of Zabadani becomes and almost exclusive Saudi village. Saudi vacationers own holiday homes here, enjoy the cool summer evenings in the hills outside of Damascus. But the war next door in Lebanon, only a 10-minute drive away, has disturbed this summer retreat, says Halid Mohammed(ph), who brought his family here from the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

Mr. HALID MOHAMMED (Saudi Resident): I came here to relax, but accidentally hear, by surprise, the news. So most of my time, instead of taking the kids away and entertaining the kids, I stayed home just to watch the news.

AMOS: Saudi Arabia's stand against Hezbollah, and criticism of Syria's support for the Lebanese group, has put Saudis at odds with their Syrian hosts. I asked Halid Mohammed if he agrees with the official Saudi view.

Mr. MOHAMMED: No comments.

AMOS: Too sensitive?

Mr. MOHAMMED: Not really, but no comments, yes.

AMOS: Most cars cruising the strip of shops and restaurants have Saudi license plates. The distinctive yellow and green flags of Hezbollah on display all over Damascus are missing here in Zabadani. There are no pictures of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah plastered on back windows, a new feature on Syrian cars.

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AMOS: Isa el-Sayabe(ph) comes from Dammam in southern Saudi Arabia. He and his family sip fruit smoothies at Zabadani's crowded mall. He's more open about the Saudi position, explaining that he backs it 100 percent.

Mr. ISA EL-SAYABE (Saudi Resident Vacationing in Zabadani): (unintelligible) of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah. You know, it's (unintelligible) about this one. Even USA, even England, you know?

AMOS: Many Saudis see Hezbollah as Iran's proxy, the prime patron of Lebanon's Shiite Muslim group. The Saudi businessman believes if Hezbollah wins this fight, it will be a victory for Iran, bad news for Saudi Arabia. But is it Iran or is it the emerging power of Shiite Muslims in the region, in Iraq and in Lebanon, which worries them most?

Mr. MOHAMMED: No, I can't say, I can't say both. Because, you know, for Sunni - not for Sunni, not for Shia - what I really believe now, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, most of the Arabic countries, they are thinking about the future. They are trying to build their self.

AMOS: This is the predominant view among Saudis here who are Sunni Muslims. They back their government's outspoken position. Many see the war in sectarian terms. A victory for Shiite Muslims and Iran is a threat to Saudi Arabia, a Sunni Muslim power.

However, it is not a universal view. Motuq el-Sharif(ph), on vacation from the Saudi capital, has also been watching television news nonstop, watching the destruction of Lebanon and the mounting civilian casualties.

Mr. MOTUQ EL-SHARIF (Saudi Vacationing in Zabadani): (Through translator) I hope God will help Islam win.

AMOS: Even Shia Islam?

Mr. SHARIF: (Through translator) All Muslim. I hope that God will help Muslim and Israel will lose.

AMOS: It is a summer holiday these Saudis will not forget, a vacation close to the front lines of a destructive war in Lebanon. They say it will change the region, but in ways no one can predict.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Damascus. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Deborah Amos
Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.
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