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Insurgency pattern spans Islamic nations

In Afghanistan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, regimes now face battles that America probably can't win for them.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 16, 2004



WASHINGTON

Just as the United States has focused attention on how to reach the publics of Middle East countries, the governments of three countries with close US ties - Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Afghanistan - are engaged in their own struggles with extremists to win hearts and minds.

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The three cases are not the same: Fledgling governments in Iraq and Afghanistan are struggling to establish legitimacy in the face of destabilizing violence, while the Saudi royal regime battles to retain a public legitimacy that is eroding.

But when Secretary of State Colin Powell said earlier this week that Iraqis must be prepared to kill their own people - Iraqi insurgents - to establish a new government, he was painting a stark scene that broadly applies to all three countries across an arc of violence.

With the battle for the public's heart at the crux of each case, those working to undermine both old and new regimes are trying to limit the public outcry that may result from indiscriminate violence. In many cases, that means they're shifting tactics.

"The government needs the support from the public to do anything against the perpetrators of violence, and the extremists realize this, which is why we see them changing tactics from indiscriminate bombings to very targeted attacks," says Matthew Levitt, a former FBI counterterrorism official and Saudi expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Noting that recent attacks in Saudi Arabia have shifted from large-scale bombings to assassinations and kidnapping, often against foreign targets seen as supporters of the ruling regime, Mr. Levitt says, "These attacks may be just as terrible, but not necessarily to the average Saudi."

Of course, there are dangers of oversimplifying and blurring crucial distinctions when the three countries are lumped together. Afghanistan is different in that its case includes the resistance of long-mighty warlords to relinquishing power. And the pairing of Iraq with Saudi Arabia could bolster the Bush administration's argument that invading Iraq was an essential part of the war on terror - a view that some experts reject.

But James Phillips, a Middle East expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, says that at this point all three countries are clearly facing violence perpetrated by Al Qaeda and related groups seeking "to drive a wedge" between the governments and the population.

Even observers who reject Iraq's importance to the war on terror see a common theme in these cases of regimes struggling to establish or maintain legitimacy while highly dependent on a foreign presence.

"Each of these regimes has an American problem," says Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army officer who is now director of the Center for International Relations at Boston University. "From the perspective of the bad guys, all three regimes are tainted by their involvement with the US. The people in each case are weighing that involvement, and the insurgents or whoever are capitalizing on that."

That point was illustrated by Monday's car bombing in Baghdad that ripped through a convoy of Westerners, killing at least 13 people, five of whom were foreigners. Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi vowed "to bring these criminals to justice as soon as possible." But at the scene of the attack, crowds were seen celebrating the destruction, with some chanting, "Down with the USA!"

In Afghanistan, 11 Chinese workers building a road were killed last week, part of a general upswing in violence that some observers fear could threaten elections planned for September.

And in Saudi Arabia, Westerners have been targeted in a wave of attacks. One American was abducted, with his captors claiming they will subject him to measures reflective of the treatment Iraqi detainees were subject to in Abu Ghraib prison.

Such tactics appear to have replaced for now the bombings that have hit foreign compounds and government installations. "They have learned that killing Saudis and even foreign Muslims backfires on them," says Heritage's Mr. Phillips.

The Saudi case is complicated by the fact that the royal regime's legitimacy derives in part from its status as keeper of Islam's holiest sites, says Levitt of the Washington Institute. With the regime's other pillar of public legitimacy - its historic provision of cradle-to-grave well-being - "no longer financially tenable," the importance of the religious connection becomes more crucial.

And that, he adds, makes the regime more hesitant to act against religious extremists and their supporters in high places. "In areas like terror financing the Saudis have done a lot of good, but unless they go farther and hold some member of the Saudi elite responsible, they won't have crossed a threshold," Levitt says. "If they did that, they would reap public support for the action."

A report released this week by a high-level task force of the Council on Foreign Relations makes similar conclusions, finding the Saudi government has failed to hold any well-connected individuals accountable for terror-financing activities.

Still, the Saudi regime is on much more solid ground than the other two, which are trying to establish legitimacy from scratch, says Phillips. "The problem of the Saudi regime is that even with these attacks, it remains in a certain denial," he says. "But it faces a long-term problem."

Some experts like Mr. Bacevich of Boston University say the deteriorating situation in Saudi Arabia also suggests that one of the justifications for war in Iraq is not panning out.

"One of the arguments ... was that toppling Saddam Hussein would allow us to withdraw from Saudi Arabia, and that would relieve a major irritant playing into the hands of the Islamist radicals," he says. "Saddam is gone and our military presence [in Saudi Arabia] is pretty much gone ... but that has not eased the pressure on the Saudi regime."

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