Muslim opinion jeopardizes support

Sun National Staff

WASHINGTON -- From Islamabad to Damascus, leaders of the Muslim and Arab worlds began to fall in line last week behind an angry and grieving superpower, offering solace and pledging support to an American-led war on terrorism.

But as President Bush assumes command of a new international coalition, the United States risks unleashing competing regional forces that could jeopardize this support and undermine the leaders themselves.

The region is vastly different from the one that accepted the presence of hundreds of thousands of U.S. ground troops to drive Iraq from Kuwait a decade ago. Resentment has mounted over the humanitarian plight of ordinary Iraqis suffering under United Nations sanctions and over a widespread perception that the United States ignores Israeli shelling and siege of Palestinian towns.

In the age of satellite television, pro-American leaders -- most of them autocrats -- no longer have the power to control public opinion and must compete for the hearts and minds of their poor and uneducated with the anti-American clarion calls of militant Islamists.

Bush has put together some of the main pieces of an international coalition similar to the one his father mobilized against Iraq in 1990 and 1991, winning full backing from NATO and an anti-terror resolution from the U.N. Security Council.

Judged by support

America's friends and would-be friends were bluntly told they would be judged according to a new standard -- whether they supported the United States in its goal of wiping out the perpetrators or not.

Initial responses showed that American power to intimidate remained intact.

Even Syria's president and foreign minister -- kept at arm's length from Washington for supporting Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon and providing haven for anti-Israel terror groups -- sent strong letters of support.

"It's a coalition that will stay intact, that will be built upon over time. And what we have to do is not just go after these perpetrators, and those who gave them haven, but the whole curse of terrorism that is upon the face of the earth," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday.

'Not at war'

But dissonant voices could be heard behind the public declarations of support. Some Europeans, fearful of straining their own ties to the Middle East, tried to muffle the drumbeat from Washington.

Louis Michel, the Belgian foreign minister who currently speaks for the European Union, said America's tough response "shouldn't go too far" and said Europe was "not at war." French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin stressed, "We are not at war against Islam or the Arab-Muslim world."

Their comments reflected fears that in the Middle East, that's how Bush's "war" will be perceived. A diplomat from a Muslim nation, who refused to be identified by name or country, said that while many in the region sympathize with the United States, there's a feeling that "when you bully around other countries, this is what happens to you."

Clashing sentiments

Nowhere is the delicacy of Bush's challenge in sharper focus than in Pakistan, where Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar said yesterday that the government would comply with all U.N. resolutions to combat "international terrorism" -- but stopped short of saying it would unreservedly support the United States. During the Clinton administration, riots erupted in Pakistan after the United States fired missiles into Osama bin Laden's camps in neighboring Afghanistan.

Elsewhere, public opinion might restrict the kinds of support Muslim leaders are prepared to give Bush -- at least publicly.

"I have no doubt all will support them in terms of providing intelligence. This can be done discreetly. But they will not get into a clash with their people," said Mohammed Wahby, a former Egyptian diplomat and Washington columnist for the influential magazine Al-Mussawar.

The focus of popular feeling is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Bush's hands-off treatment is seen as tacit endorsement of Israel's closure of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and its assassinations of militant leaders. The attacks against New York and Washington might have increased American empathy with Israelis threatened by suicide bombers, but that's not shared in the Arab world.

"Unless the U.S. does something visibly" to ease the Palestinians' plight, "not a single Arab government can join this coalition in a serious way," Wahby said.

At this point, the administration has given no indication that it wants Arab states to join a military campaign, and Washington appears to be tailoring its demands of Arab leaders to the kinds of tasks they can perform without a backlash.

But even in the oil-rich, U.S.-protected Persian Gulf countries, where the United States would likely seek to cut off all sources of money to the terrorists, leaders have in the past been reluctant to give full support to U.S. anti-terror efforts if they risked domestic fallout.

In providing intelligence, "while people are willing to give information on the sources and causes of terrorism, they are not willing to be [seen as] collaborators," said Clovis Maksoud, a former Arab League ambassador who heads the Center for the Global South at American University.

And the United States also needs to be careful with its rhetoric, he said. "When you talk about a terror attack against Western civilization and democracy, that's a little bit patronizing. It perpetuates a civilizational divide and makes people feel they are viewed as a different class, a different category."

Democracy sidelined

U.S. promotion of democracy will likely be pushed to the sidelines, in Pakistan and elsewhere, because the United States will be dependent on existing regimes.

And leaders will try to impose their own definitions of who is a terrorist and enlist U.S. and Western sympathy for a crackdown on groups they view as violent threats. This might come into play as the U.S. campaign seeks to demolish the bin Laden network of cells belonging to a variety of Islamic militant groups in the region.

Egypt, for instance, accuses Britain, the closest U.S. ally, of providing a haven to Islamic militants fighting the government of President Hosni Mubarak.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told Jewish leaders in a conference call Friday, "The coalition against terror should fight against all terrorist organizations. There is no good terror and no bad terror." Israel includes in the category not only Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which send suicide bombers into Israel, but also Fatah militias and Hezbollah guerrillas whose war against Israel's northern border is backed by Syria.

Among Arabs, however, a clear distinction is made, and such groups are viewed principally as fighters against occupation who use terror as a weapon.

"The impression can easily be created that we're fighting the same enemy," said Geoffrey Aronson, director of the Foundation for Middle East peace, undercutting the long-standing U.S. view that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires a political solution.

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