Why world image matters to Arab regimes

War developments have them worried about their ability to exert influence.

Ever since the United States began its war in Afghanistan, the world has paid growing attention to the power of Muslim, and particularly Arab, public opinion.

But now, with the Taliban crumbling much faster than envisioned and with the fate of hundreds of so-called "Afghan Arabs" drawing global attention to the Arab role in the war, Arab governments are finding that world opinion is a two-way street.

From Jordan to Saudi Arabia, Arab regimes are concerned the world will place them on the "wrong" side in the conflict. They worry that this perception will hamper their ability to exert an influence on a conflict they see as vital to their interests.

And governments are acting accordingly - at least so far as to repair their image with the Western world.

Jordan plans to take part in whatever international peace-keeping force is established to maintain order in Afghanistan while a provisional government is brokered. After weeks of doubts about its cooperation, Saudi Arabia is stepping up as a major player in the international effort to rebuild Afghanistan. Even the small, conservative state of Yemen is cooperating with efforts to battle terrorist organizations, US officials say.

"There is an image of Arab people on the wrong side, on the side of a limited, unpopular group, and we feel strongly this has to be corrected," says Jafar Hassan, deputy chief of mission at the Jordanian Embassy in Washington.

Arab concerns over global perception of their countries took hold after the Afghan capital of Kabul fell and news reports around the world showed Muslims celebrating what they themselves called their "liberation" from a tyrannical regime. The push by Arab governments to play a more visible role has accelerated as people continue to watch what becomes of the "Afghan Arab" soldiers - Arabs who went to Afghanistan over the past decade or so to fight for an Islamic state.

Even as Kunduz, the Taliban's last stronghold in northern Afghanistan, appeared to be falling, questions swirled around the estimated 3,000 non-Afghans estimated to be fighting there on the Taliban side.

Many Pakistanis and other "locals" were thought to be willing or anxious to give up and head home, but many of the Arabs are said to prefer to fight to the death. Such brinkmanship may have been encouraged by reports that many "Afghan Arabs" were massacred by the Northern Alliance as it swept victorious across the north of the country. Foreigners also made up a large part of the Taliban prisoners who staged an uprising at a prison outside Mazar-e Sharif Sunday. Hundreds of the prisoners, including many Arabs, reportedly died in the fighting.

Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz called over the weekend for allowing any non-Afghan Muslims fighting with the Taliban to return home.

The Saudis and other Arab governments are interested in debriefing their own citizens as a way of tackling terrorist networks at home. But some specialists say Saudi Arabia in particular may also be interested in keeping the fighters out of American hands, where those connected to the Al Qaeda organization might spill sensitive information about links between regime supporters and international terrorist networks.

"There's a keen interest in doing damage control," says Emilio Viano, an expert in Arab relations at the American University here. Arab governments in places like Saudi Arabia are sensitive to charges that they have exported Islamic extremism - and the financial and terrorist networks associated with it - to all corners of the Muslim world, he says. "They want to take this opportunity to show that Arabs want to stop" that spread.

But Arab countries have another motivation, Mr. Viano says. "They want to somehow be at the table, to have some say in what happens next."

Along with the US, Japan, and the European Union, Saudi Arabia will co-chair preliminary meetings planning Afghanistan's reconstruction. Those meetings are to culminate in a ministerial meeting in Japan in January.

Jordan has already announced it will contribute a field hospital and medical personnel to Afghanistan, and it expects to support whatever multinational peacekeeping force is set up.

"The interest of the Jordanian state [in participating in United Nations-sponsored forces] is on two levels: It's for both institutional and foreign-policy reasons," says Mr. Hassan.

Moreover, the Cairo-based Arab League is holding a conference this week to discuss how to improve Islam's image in the West.

Still, Arab states need to go beyond image repair to deeds at home such as political and economic reforms that create more inclusive societies, some US experts say. Secretary of State Colin Powell hinted at this in a speech last week, when he called on governments to open up avenues to political participation.

Saudi Arabia is welcomed by Western governments at the table where reconstruction will be hammered out, but critics say it and Egypt especially must face up to the domestic conditions that breed extremist thinking.

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