JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia - Lobbing grenades, militants invaded Jiddah's heavily guarded U.S. consulate on Monday, attacking staffers and others in the compound until Saudi security forces stormed in. Nine people, none American, were killed in a gunbattle that showed how vulnerable Saudi Arabia still is to Islamic extremist attacks.
The bold assault, the worst in the kingdom since May, demonstrated that Saudi Arabia's crackdown on al-Qaida is still far from successful in the native land of terror leader Osama bin Laden.
The group al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement posted on a militant Web site, saying the operation had been dubbed "the blessed Fallujah battle," referring to the former insurgent stronghold in Iraq inavaded last month by U.S. troops.
It said the attack was carried out by the "unit of the martyr Abu Anas al Shami," who was a spiritual adviser to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the most feared terrorist in Iraq. There was no way to confirm the claim. Saudi officials blamed the attack on a "deviant" group - the government's way of identifying al-Qaida extremists it holds responsible for a string of terror strikes over the past two years.
President Bush said the attack showed "terrorists are still on the move," trying to intimidate Americans and force the United States to withdraw from Saudi Arabia and Iraq. The U.S. Embassy in Riyadh and the consulate in Dhahran were closed to the public for two days, as was the Jiddah consulate. The Embassy urged the thousands of Americans in the country - many of whom already live under extraordinarily tight security - to "exercise utmost security precautions."
Monday's assault began when the attackers sneaked on foot behind an embassy car that was entering the consulate through a gate, then lobbed grenades at guards to take control of the gate area, said Brig. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, the Interior Ministry spokesman. The attackers also used incendiary grenades designed to create fires and to send up heavy smoke, he said.
Plumes of black smoke could be seen rising in the air shortly after the attack. About 20 minutes after fighting their way in, the attackers telephoned emergency services, claimed to be holding up to 17 people hostage and warned Saudi forces not to attack, said Adel al-Jubeir, foreign affairs adviser to Crown Prince Abdullah.
Those held at gunpoint were mostly either in the courtyard-like area to apply for visas, or were employees who worked in that area, a senior Saudi official in Washington said.
As the call was ending, Saudi security forces stormed the area and fought a short gunbattle, the official said. Al-Jubeir said the fight was over within three or four minutes, and the troops then worked for about three hours after that searching the compound to ensure it was secure. He denied earlier reports that the standoff lasted four hours.
Employees rushed into a safe area, and the attackers never made it inside the consulate's buildings, al-Turki said. He denied anyone was held hostage, but said the attackers did hurt those they came across in the courtyard area.
Five consulate employees, all non-Americans, were killed and another four injured, the State Department said. Three of the five attackers also died in the shootout and the other two were captured wounded, the Saudi Interior Ministry said.
A Saudi security official, quoted on Saudi television station al-Ikhbariya, said one of the wounded attackers later died in custody. The official said that besides the attackers, the five dead were a Yemeni, a Sudanese, a Filipino, a Pakistani and a Sri Lankan. The official said 13 people were wounded, including five Saudi security men.
Al-Jubeir said officials had suspected an attack was coming. "We had indications that led us to increase the level of alert and to beef up security in Jiddah and in other areas," said al-Jubeir, noting the government was at a higher threat level.
He said attackers in the telephone call identified themselves as the "Fallujah Brigades," a name referring to the Iraqi city that U.S. troops stormed last month to uproot insurgents. But al-Jubair said the nature of the Jidda attack - the weapons used and the high-profile Western target - indicate it may have been carried out by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, a group that has claimed responsibility for other attacks in Saudi Arabia.
The attack came a week after the deputy leader of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahri, warned in a videotape that Washington must change its policies or face further attacks by the terror group.
"We could hear the gunshots outside, but we didn't know what was going on," said a consulate employee who rushed to the safe area and later spoke to The Associated Press by telephone on condition of anonymity. "They were heavy at times and not so heavy at other times."
The attacks, immediately praised on militant Islamic web sites, showed that extremists in Saudi Arabia are still capable of carrying out sophisticated strikes despite the government crackdown.
"This was a very hard target to attack, and they pulled it off," said Diaa Rashwan, a Cairo-based expert on Muslim militants, predicting the attack would boost morale among extremists. "For the government, this was a security failure. For the militants, this was a military victory."
The Saudi Cabinet quickly convened and issued a statement condemning the attack and reaffirming the government's determination "to fight terrorism in all its aspects and to hunt down its perpetrators until they are rooted out and the society is cleaned of them."
In Riyadh, U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Carol Kalin said four of the five employees who were killed held administrative jobs and that one was a private contract guard on the consulate's payroll. Four other embassy workers - all hired locally - were hospitalized, Kalin said.
Asked about the conflicting reports that hostages were taken during the assault, Kalin said: "The investigation of the Saudi authorities is ongoing and the embassy has no comment on this report at this time."
Kalin said it was unclear if any of the U.S. Marine guards inside the consulate were involved in the gunbattle.
The consulate - like all U.S. diplomatic buildings and other Western compounds in Saudi Arabia - has been heavily fortified and guarded since last year's series of bombings against targets housing foreigners. Guard posts are located on the corners of the compound and a road open to civilian traffic runs along part of the wall.
Saudi and U.S. officials have blamed al-Qaida, led by bin Laden, for all major militant attacks in the kingdom since May 2003.
The Saudi government has cracked down hard, arresting and killing many key militants, and quieting the attacks somewhat.
Last May, however, 22 people were killed, including 19 foreigners, by militants who took over a resort complex in Khobar and held hostages for 25 hours.
In June, militants in Riyadh, the capital, kidnapped and beheaded Paul M. Johnson Jr., an engineer for a U.S. defense company.
About 9,000 Americans live in the Jiddah consular district, which encompasses western Saudi Arabia from Yemen to Jordan. The population of Jiddah is estimated at more than 2 million.
Associated Press writers Tarek Al-Issawi in Dubai and John Solomon in Washington contributed to this report.