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Hardest fight outside Iraq, general says

Defeating Islamic extremism in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan is a bigger strategic challenge for the United States than finishing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. commander in the region said Thursday.

It is not mainly a military mission, said Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. Central Command.

"It is a battle of ideas as much as it is a military battle," he said.

The kind of assistance that Saudi Arabia needs "is not the kind of help that the 82nd Airborne Division brings to the table," Abizaid said, alluding to the unit that was the first U.S. ground force to arrive in Saudi Arabia after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990.

Coincidentally underscoring his point, Saudi authorities on Thursday reported that suspected terrorists killed at least five government security agents in a gunbattle in Riyadh, the capital.

The Saudi government launched a campaign against Islamic militants and al-Qaida cells after a suicide bombing at a housing compound in Riyadh last May that killed 26 people. The government has arrested hundreds of suspects. On Nov. 8, another suicide attack on a Riyadh housing compound killed 17 people.

The leader of al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden, is a Saudi exile. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, some Americans questioned the wisdom of continuing support for the Saudi royal family, whose oil is a vital link in the American economic lifeline.

Abizaid, who is of Lebanese descent and an expert in Arabic affairs, said that while finishing the military's work in Iraq and Afghanistan is important, he is keeping his eye on the bigger picture.

"If I were to tell you that the two most immediate problems that we have to deal with right now are stability in Iraq and Afghanistan, I would also tell you that the two broadest strategic problems we have to deal with happen to be Pakistan and Saudi Arabia," he said.

Of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, he said, "They are going to be tough fights in both places."