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On Mideast, US response conflicted

The Yassin killing points up different visions of terror war.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 24, 2004


When vehement reaction across the Middle East to Israel's assassination Monday of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin included swift condemnation from Iraq's most influential Muslim leader, it was a reminder of the central role the Israeli-Palestinian conflict plays in everything the United States is trying to accomplish in the region.

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From the stabilization and democratization of Iraq to reaching Arab hearts and minds to winning the war on terror, all turn to some degree on events in the long, bitter conflict - and on how the US acts on it.

The US response to the assassination evolved Monday from what looked like tacit approval of Israel's action against a man considered by the Bush administration to be a terrorist mastermind to a pronouncement of the killing as "deeply troubling."

The mixed signals suggest the conflicting visions within the administration on how the US should approach the Middle East. But, more broadly, they underscore the differences that exist within the administration and across the country in general on how best to fight the war on terror - and what actions only set the fight back.

One response reflects the "search and destroy" approach that much of the world associates with the US war on terror - and which was exemplified by Israel's equating the Yassin killing with "the war on terror everywhere." The other response represents an effort to address terrorism's root causes by emphasizing people contact over force.

With Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani - a man who has single-handedly forced various revisions in US plans for Iraq - calling Sheikh Yassin's killing an "ugly crime," and with even Baghdad streets erupting in protest, the potential for impact on the war on terror could not have been clearer.

The dual visions in the US on how to fight terror are not new. But they tend to be put under a spotlight by events like the killing of Yassin, who was a founder of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement.

"The first reaction came from the top of the chain, and it was very stark, very supportive of a preemptive kind of war on terror, coming from the neoconservative approach," says Michael Hudson, a Middle East expert at Georgetown University, noting that the administration's first response to the assassination came from Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser. "I would say that represents the administration's true feelings."

But Mr. Hudson says the later qualification of the act as "deeply troubling" "comes from a different perspective" on fighting terrorism "that includes the importance of addressing factors like how America is seen in the world, and how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict plays in our success." Calling it "no coincidence" that the "more guarded follow-up statement" came from the State Department, Hudson says, "Those are people whose perspective is ... that what [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon is doing is bad in several ways, including for the US in the region."