The battle to frame the battle

News outlets are currently playing bin Laden vs. Bush in the Muslim world.

As the US rains down not just bombs, but small transistor radios tuned to American news, the battle to win the hearts and minds of Afghans - and the world's Muslims - is joined.

Air-dropped vegetarian meals, pamphlets, radios - and his Sunday speech televised to the Arab world - are a strategic part of President Bush's message: This is not a war against against Islam, but a global war on terrorism.

But Islamic extremist Osama bin Laden is taking his campaign to the airwaves. Within hours of the initial US and British attacks on Afghanistan, Al-Jazeera, the Arab equivalent of CNN, broadcast a taped statment by the Al Queda leader in which he thanked Allah [God] for the Sept. 11 attacks on the US. The bin Laden message, taped prior to the US attacks, clearly seeks to rally a reaction in the Islamic world to the US assault.

In the coming days and weeks, the public-opinion war - particularly in Afghanistan and the Muslim world - is likely to be as crucial as the military campaign.

From Amman, Jordan, to Islamabad, Pakistan, a remarkable kind of global debate is now playing out in local media, with many newspapers running Mr. bin Laden's words from his videotape on front pages alongside Bush's speech Sunday. In Egypt, from which hail many of bin Laden's top lieutenants, the extremist's words were printed without censoring.

"There's so much distrust of the US in the Muslim and Arab worlds right now you can't say anyone is winning or losing this battle yet," says Shibley Telhami, a Mideast expert at the University of Maryland. "It is the beginning of a clash of civilizations within the Middle East," he adds, with people drawn to bin Laden's anti-Western rhetoric feeling confirmed in their beliefs, while those who fear his impact now feeling "even more fearful."

In announcing the beginning of strikes Sunday, President Bush chose simple, declarative sentences to make the moral case for action and to draw the distinction between terrorists and Muslims he hopes the world will hear. "At the same time the oppressed people of Afghanistan will know the generosity of America and its allies," Bush said, adding that the campaign includes drops of food, medicines and supplies. "We are the friends of almost a billion [people] worldwide who practice the Islamic faith," he said.

Speaking on Monday morning news shows Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the US had dropped 37,500 humanitarian food aide packages as part of what he calls the "so-called war."

And as the leader of the only US ally that participated directly in Sunday's military attacks, British Prime Minister Tony Blair also emphasized that this is a war neither against the Afghan people nor Islam. "It angers me, as it angers the vast majority of Muslims, to hear bin Laden and his associates described as Islamic terrorists," Mr. Blair said Sunday. "They are terrorists, pure and simple."

Yet just how that message was being received in key Muslim countries was mixed on Monday.

In Jordan on Sunday, just before the US military strikes began, Jordanian newspapers carried stories that officials had uncovered a plot by bin Laden's followers to assassinate Jordan's King Abdullah and his family. The release of the report seemed timed to bolstering support for Sunday night's retaliation in Afghanistan by letting Jordanian's know that their well-liked royal family was also under threat by bin Laden.

But public support for the US and British attacks was in short supply, and many said that discomfort over Washington's campaign to destroy terrorism could easily turn to rage at what many in the Arab world see as hypocrisy.

In a leading Jordanian paper, al-Rayeh, a political cartoon showed a US airplane over Afghanistan: it was dropped food out of one side of the plane, and missiles out of the other.

"What does Bush think, he is taking the terrorist in his hands? There are millions more like him," says Hazem Momani, a Jordanian politician, of Osama bin Laden. Though things are calm in Jordan because the country is under a security clampdown - Islamic militant groups have been outlawed - Mr. Momani says he's not sure the quiet will last.

In Pakistan, moves by President Pervez Musharraf to shore up his support within the country's military and police forces suggested divisions in this crucial country bordering Afghanistan are reaching into official ranks.

With concern over Pakistan's stability and the street reaction growing, Bush has ordered Secretary of State Colin Powell to visit Pakistan and India later this week.

President Musharraf ousted the powerful chief of his national intelligence agencies and installed Peshawar's own chief of military intelligence, General Ehsanul Haq. The move was seen by political analysts here as only the start of an advancing purge of suspected Taliban sympathizers in Pakistan's security services.

On the streets, a call to arms rang out Monday as outrage spilled onto dirt roads and city squares up and down Pakistan's North Western Frontier province. Dozens of protesters were arrested and about ten were seriously injured in the clashes.

But cries for a "holy war" against the Americans and the state of Pakistan appeared to sputter early in the day under the yoke of brute Pakistani police force despite attempts to burn and loot some banks and office building in the southern city of Quetta.

Frontier constabulary forces kept their distance from a massive anti-American demonstration in the often-lawless "tribal districts" west of Peshawar along the Afghan border. An estimated 50,000 religious students and tribesmen blocked the Kohat-Rawalpindi road chanting anti-American slogans and calling for supporters to join the fight against the US and its allies.

"The US by its actions is converting us all into fundamentalists," says Mohamad Ali Saban, who led a group of twenty angry students towards the gate of Peshawar University, which was ordered closed for three days. "What Osama is saying goes to the heart of our religion. We are liberal minded people but when the West behaves like this, we will stand with him."

Meanwhile, inside the Taliban's consulate in Peshawar, officials sipped tea early Monday morning and spoke by radio to their colleagues, who were under attack from US fighter bombers and cruise missiles. They say that several "jihad training camps" had been the target of some of the attacks, which were spread across the country.

"The morale of the Taliban on the inside remains strong - it is not sinking," says the senior Taliban consul in Peshawar. "The jihad will continue."

Monday's street clashes could be only the beginning of a dangerous polarization of Muslim populations that could end up threatening moderate regimes friendly with the West, Mr. Telhami says. He points to clashes Monday in Gaza between Palestinian supporters of the Hamas organization and Palestinian authorities as a worrisome harbinger of what might be ahead. At least two Palestinians are reported to have died in those clashes.

The cultural divide was beginning to show in other countries as well.

In Morocco, a staunch US ally that participated in the US-led Gulf War coalition in 1991 offered its support to the US, saying the "kingdom of Morocco expresses its attachment to a measured and wise drive of [military ] operations in Afghanistan," according to Reuters. But Morocco's Islamist groups criticized the US action. "America's war machine has begun a clear aggression on poor Muslim people of Afghanistan to punish them for a crime that was committed by a small group," said Mustapha Ramid, coordinator of the Nationalist Islamic Congress.

Whether the population will heed sometimes ambiguous governments or religious leaders will be important in Muslim countries. But in the West, leaders expressed little ambiguity.

Canadian leader Jean Chretien praised both the balance of the US response and Bush's global leadership, while French president Jacques Chirac expressed support for the raids by emphasizing the repressive nature of the Afghan regime - a message that plays well with the French population ambivalent about military strikes.

Still, some worry that the widespread dissemination of bin Laden's words, the first graphic installment in the propaganda war, make the "war" more difficult to win.

"We never saw Hitler making his speeches except in newsreels. Here you have bin Laden on everybody's television set," says Henry Graff, a history professor and presidential scholar at Colombia University in New York. "The propaganda is being spread all over the world by American television, by world television."

Telhami says the US inclusion of humanitarian assistance makes a "moral statement" that some ambivalent Muslims will hear, but he says the battle for minds that is now under way must become something much more broad and long term. "This will have to be an international effort that goes deeper to address the ills that are at the root of so much despair in the region," he says.

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