Extremism behind Mideast attacks

A series of bomb strikes against Western targets in Kuwait has spotlighted the spread of an Iran-style Islamic extremism that 20th-century security precautions can only imperfectly contain.

A group calling itself the ''Islamic Jihad'' claimed responsibility for Monday's attacks. The Jihad, meaning holy war in Arabic, earlier claimed responsibility for suicide bomb strikes in October that took 298 lives at installations of US and French troops in Beirut. The group had also said it was behind the April bomb attack on the United States Embassy in Beirut, and the attack on Israeli military headquarters in Tyre, Lebanon.

The US, France, and most Arab political analysts here have attributed these attacks to Shiite Muslim extremists who look to Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini for inspiration and who believe that ''martyrdom'' in such strikes ensures passage to heaven.

But it is also widely assumed by diplomatic and Arab sources that the perpetrators must have at least the logistic support of one or more Middle East governments. Indeed, some commentators argue these governments are most likely to be pulling the strings.

Iran and Syria have both been publicly cited in this regard. Both have vocally denied the charges, although giving various public hints of support for the results of the attacks. Damascus Radio noted they ''came at a time when observers said the US was trying to find pretexts to expand its influence in the Arab region.''

The attacks in Kuwait seemed to suggest that it may be all but impossible to prevent such bomb missions altogether. For one thing, the geographical boundaries of the terror campaign seem suddenly to have widened. For another, the attacker possesses the ultimate advantage of accepting - ''craving'' might be a better word - martyrdom for what he believes is a sacred cause.

The Americans know how powerful fanaticism can be from their agonizing attempt to wrest embassy hostages from young Shiite extremists in Iran. Martyrdom itself is a principle deeply imbedded in Islam. This is particularly so in the Shiite brand of Islam that originally split from the mainstream Sunni Muslims over the question of who would succeed Islam's founder-prophet, Muhammad , in the 7th century.

In more modern times, the Shiite-Sunni split has taken on powerful social, economic, and political significance. The Sunnis of the Middle East have, in most cases, emerged as dominant political and commercial classes. The Shiites, typically, are a poorer, more rural, and generally less advantaged group. They are the Islamic ''have-nots'' at natural odds with the Sunni establishment.

The jolting processes of modernization and urbanization, encouraged by Middle East oil wealth in the 1970s, have further disoriented and embittered many Shiites, particularly younger ones. Ayatollah Khomeini's Shiite revolution has lent new focus and impetus to such feelings.

The West, particularly the US with its highly visible role in Lebanon, has meanwhile afforded a conveniently visible and vulnerable target for the most extreme proponents of the Shiite faith and their shadowy allies.

The targets of Monday's strikes, involving at least six separate bomb attacks , included the US and French embassies and an American residential compound. Kuwaiti installations, including an airport control tower and a government ministry, were also hit. Five people are said to have been killed, none of them American.

Relations between Kuwait and Iran, its neighbor to the north, have been increasingly tense since the toppling of the Shah by Ayatollah Khomeini and the more recent Iran-Iraq war, in which the Kuwaitis have backed Iraq.

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