Arabs onside if Islam not targeted, U.S. told
By MARK MACKINNON, The Globe and Mail
Monday, September 17, 2001
AMMAN -- The Arab world is willing to co-operate with the United States if it takes specific military action against Osama bin Laden and Afghanistan, but that support could quickly melt into a "conflict of civilizations" if Washington makes Islam the target, a top Jordanian diplomat warned yesterday.
Taher Masri, a former prime minister of Jordan and currently the country's representative to the Arab League, says there is broad support among Arab nations for a retaliatory strike at those behind last week's terrorist strikes on New York and Washington, D.C. Most observers expect the United States to move soon against Mr. bin Laden, considered the chief suspect in the attacks, and the Afghan government that considers him its "guest."
Mr. Masri suggested that even among Islamic nations, Afghanistan's extremist Taliban regime has few friends who would support it if it continues to harbour Mr. bin Laden. However, he warned that should the United States broaden its war on terrorism to include Iraq, or try and define groups such as the Hezbollah that support the Palestinian cause as terrorists, it could be perceived as an assault on Arabs in general.
"Don't make it a campaign against Islam," he said in an interview at his Amman home with The Globe and Mail and The Washington Post.
"Because if you are fighting against Islam, you will increase terrorism and you will make it a conflict of civilizations, Muslims against Christians."
Mr. Masri said that while Arab leaders are willing to back the United States on a conditional basis, public opinion in the region is sharply divided on the issue, as anti-American resentment is high because of its support of Israel against the Palestinians and its choking economic sanctions against Iraq.
That split was illustrated sharply here yesterday when religious scholars from Jordan's main Islamist party issued a fatwa, or religious edict, banning any Muslim support of any retaliatory action taken by the United States.
"A coalition with the United States to launch an aggression against any Muslim country is religiously forbidden and is treason to God, his prophet and the faithful," said the statement from the Islamic Action Front.
In order to appease those elements, Mr. Masri said, Arab support "is not a blank cheque." Behind the scenes, Arab negotiators are asking the United States to repay them for whatever aid they give by intervening to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Jordan is in a particularly tight spot, with a Palestinian majority as well as thousands of restive Iraqi refugees.
Egypt, another moderate state in the region seen as a key player in building any coalition involving Arab states, has been urging a United Nations-sponsored effort to fight terrorism.
"We are not talking about military coalitions, we are talking about a system," said Nabil Osman, director of Egypt's state information service. "No country should give terrorists asylum, for example."
However, thus far, going through the United Nations doesn't seem to be on Washington's agenda. A U.S. State Department envoy met with representatives from 15 Arab states over the weekend, issuing a "with us or against us" ultimatum and asking them to show their support by cracking down on terrorism domestically and publicly backing any strike against Mr. bin Laden.
While all have publicly stated they are willing to fight terrorism, Arab nations are wary of entering any coalition, Mr. Masri said, since promises to resolve the Palestinian issue were made by the United States to entice them into the anti-Iraq coalition it formed in advance of the 1991 Persian Gulf war. Mr. Masri, who was prime minister at the time, feels those promises were never fulfilled.
The definition of what constitutes terrorism also figures to be a sticking point. The state-run Syrian newspaper Tishrin wrote over the weekend that any antiterror campaign must take aim at Israel. However, Syria supports the Hezbollah, which Washington considers a terrorist militia, and which Israel would also like to see targeted in any crackdown.
Syria sees the Hezbollah as waging "legitimate resistance against occupation." Jordan and other Arab states are also insistent that Iraq had nothing to do with last week's attempts, noting the United States has brought forward no evidence to the contrary.
The lingering Palestinian issue, Mr. Masri said yesterday, is one of the main causes in the rise of international terrorism in the subsequent decade. Landless Palestinian refugees, Mr. Masri said, feel they have little to lose, and many blame the United States for their problems because it is Israel's strongest backer.
"I tell you now that in Palestine, you will find tens and tens who are willing to die, not because they are terrorists, but because life is meaningless to them," he said. "Those who [were behind the attacks] in America, it was revenge they wanted to have because America has been hurting them for so long."
In a meeting with international reporters yesterday, Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdul Ilah Khatib said he feels the distance between the Israeli and Palestinian sides grew over the weekend when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called off a planned meeting between his Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
He said that gesture, combined with Israel's escalating military incursions into the Palestinian territories since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, leave the impression that Israel is taking advantage of the attacks to brand Palestinians as terrorists and link its cause to the U.S. one.
"It would be very hard for the American efforts for a coalition if people here think Israel is exploiting the situation," Mr. Ilah Khatib said.
Negotiations to defuse the situation are continuing. The interview in Mr. Ilah Khatib's office was interrupted at one point by a phone call from Mr. Peres.
Mr. Ilah Khatib wouldn't discuss the substance of the call.