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Saudis accuse Iran of possible 'act of war' as regional tensions rise

By KAREEM FAHIM | The Washington Post | Published: November 6, 2017

ISTANBUL — Saudi Arabia on Monday accused archrival Iran of direct responsibility for a missile attack on the Saudi capital last week, issuing a stark warning that the strike may have constituted an "act of war," according to the official Saudi press agency.

The warning also came as questions have emerged about the temperament of Saudi Arabia's young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, whose startling purge of princes, officials and businessman in his country last week reinforced what his critics said was a reputation for impulsive behavior.

The missile was fired from neighboring Yemen on Saturday by the Houthis, a rebel group with ties to Iran that has been fighting against a Saudi-led military coalition for more than two years. The war has seen countless cross border attacks - including thousands of Saudi airstrikes across Yemen - and endless recriminations between the Saudi and Iranian governments.

Though it caused no casualties, the missile strike was the deepest yet into Saudi territory, and it came as a regional confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran appears to be reaching a boiling point, raising concerns about a military escalation.

The Saudi statement claimed the government had "confirmed the role of Iran's regime in manufacturing these missiles and smuggling them to the Houthi militias in Yemen." It added that the government "reserves its right to respond to Iran in the appropriate time and manner."

Iranian officials denied any connection to the missile strike.

"The enemy uses every opportunity to accuse Iran, and we will certainly reject it," Iran's defense minister, Gen. Amir Hatami, said on Sunday in comments carried by the semiofficial ISNA news agency.

Events in Saudi Arabia over the last few days added urgency and a sense of menace to the escalating rhetoric. On Saturday, Lebanon's prime minister announced his resignation from the government while visiting Saudi Arabia, in what was widely interpreted as a new attempt by the Saudi leadership to confront Iran's influence in Lebanon.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri led a coalition government that included the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group.

Also on Saturday, the authorities in Saudi Arabia and local media announced a new initiative against corruption that resulted in the detentions of some of Saudi Arabia's most powerful figures, including Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the billionaire investor, as well as cabinet ministers and the head of the elite National Guard.

The crown prince was named as head of a committee investigating the corruption. While his advocates, including many Saudis, cheered his willingness to confront graft in the kingdom, analysts saw the arrests as a naked and possibly imprudent power grab that shed light on the crown prince's aggressive style of leadership.

A former United States intelligence official said that the 32-year old crown prince, who is often referred to by his initials, MBS, was in "over his ski tips" after arresting so many influential Saudis.

"His arrogation of power and authority, which is inconsistent with how the royal family and monarchy have functioned over many decades, will inevitably lead to trouble," he said.

The crown prince's central role in Saudi Arabia's intervention in Yemen's war has also angered his critics. More than two years after the Saudi began a military campaign against the Houthi rebels and their allies, the war is at a stalemate. More than 10,000 Yemen civilians have been killed, including a vast number as a result of Saudi airstrikes.

In their statement on Monday, the Saudis announced that they were temporarily closing all Yemeni ground, air and sea ports - deepening a blockade that aid workers has contributed to a devastating humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The Saudi statement said the closures would take into account the delivery of humanitarian supplies.

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