Islamic states caught in crossfire

Ministers of 56 Islamic nations yesterday issued a qualified condemnation of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

If Osama bin Laden is grossly outgunned in the shooting war that began in earnest this week in the skies over central Asia, he is by no means the underdog in the much more significant propaganda war that is now raging throughout the Middle East.

That battle arrived in a big way yesterday in this thumb-shaped, petroleum-rich sheikdom on the western shore of the Persian Gulf.

Foreign ministers of the 56-member Organization of the Islamic Conference conducted an emergency meeting here to discuss how best to deal with the millionaire Saudi fugitive who is now considered the most dangerous man in the world.

Their joint communique showed the delicate highwire that the Islamic states are treading - condemning the terrorism of Sept. 11, while staying on the right side of restive public sentiment.

What makes Mr. bin Laden so dangerous to US allies among these countries, analysts say, is his ability to capture the imagination of downtrodden Muslims and convince them that with courage and divine assistance they can change the world.

He is doing it with a handful of organizers who are already hard at work.

"The big issue in the weeks and months to come is whether the organizers of these [pro-bin Laden] movements succeed in transforming mobs in the street into effective revolutions in a number of Muslim countries," says James Morris of the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter in England. "I'm afraid it's a new cold war we are embarked on."

Indirect action

Rather than taking direct action, the foreign ministers ended up compromising more on a secondary level of issues to arise from the Sept. 11 attacks.

The communique issued at the end of the day condemned the Sept. 11 attacks. But it also called for a distinction to be made between terrorism and a people's "legitimate right to defend their freedom and self-determination."

This was a nod to the Palestinians, who the leaders believe have a right to fight Israeli occupation.

And the communique went on to reject "targeting any Islamic or Arab state under the pretext of fighting terrorism."

The ministers were trying to appease countries like Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, which have problems with terrorist groups, as well as other Muslim countries whose citizens admire bin Laden.

For US allies like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, high-profile support for the US-led war on terrorism will antagonize domestic conservatives who share bin Laden's militant world view.

Pakistan is already the scene of large street demonstrations, and the government has begun to jail key religious leaders aligned with bin Laden.

In Saudi Arabia, the ruling al-Saud family has come under increasing criticism domestically for allowing US military forces access to Saudi airbases. In addition, dissident clergy now say the family is no longer fit under Islam to govern the kingdom and should be removed.

"I will find it very strange if, after all this is over, the Saudis don't ask the Americans to leave [the military base]," says Khaled Saffuri, who attended the Islamic Conference and is president of the Islamic Institute in Washington.

Hearts and minds campaign

Perception is the key, analysts say, and bin Laden is no amateur in the use of information and persuasive techniques. Just as with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein a decade ago, the US finds itself at war with an adversary capable of using Arab and Muslim public opinion to full advantage regardless of what happens to his forces on a military battlefield.

At the height of the Gulf War, with US military technology on full display, Saddam Hussein suddenly transformed the nature of that confrontation by firing a volley of SCUD missiles into Israel.

Bin Laden attempted a similar move, playing the Israel card with a televised statement released shortly after US bombing began in Afghanistan.

"America will not live in peace before peace reigns in Palestine," he declared.

It was a statement calculated to take full advantage of the view of many Muslims that Washington had granted Israel a free hand to crack down on the Palestinians over the past year and a half. They see the US war on terrorism as a double standard when the US for so long has allowed Israel to use US helicopters and US munitions to conduct what many Muslims view as state-sponsored terrorism against Palestinians.

But there is a significant difference between Saddam Hussein's use of the Israel card and bin Laden's recent attempt. In 1991, Saddam Hussein and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat were allies. That is no longer the case.

Thus, it was no coincidence that Mr. Arafat was asked to address the meeting here.

He used the occasion to denounce what he termed the indiscriminate terrorist attack against the US on Sept. 11. And he stressed that until the Arab-Israeli issue is resolved, the ongoing upheaval will continue to foster militancy among Arabs and Muslims.

"This is the vital issue," Mr. Arafat says.

US allies in the Mideast are also concerned about suggestions that the US might decide unilaterally to expand its war against terrorism with military attacks against Iraq, Iran, or even Syria.

Analysts say such unilateral action would threaten to split the antiterrorism coalition, as Muslim governments would likely seek to distance themselves from actions that would be highly unpopular in the region.

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