Will Arab leaders discuss Israeli airstrike in Sudan?

Arab League likely support Sudan's Bashir against war crimes charge, but discourage ties with Iran.

By , Correspondent of the Christian Science Monitor

Arab reaction to media reports that Israeli aircraft attacked convoys in Sudan allegedly ferrying weapons from Iran to the Gaza Strip has been tepid.

The relatively muted reaction highlights Sunni Arab concerns about Iran's increasing interference in the region – a focus of an Arab summit Monday.

Israel carried out three attacks since January on what were believed to be arms shipments to Hamas, including longer range missiles capable of hitting Tel Aviv, ABC News reported on Friday citing US officials. While Israel has adopted its familiar policy of declining comment, Arab countries have refrained from any protest.

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"This is the first time Israel has attacked weapons shipments in a third-party country that has supported Iranian policies. It sent a strong message to Tehran, that supporting Hamas now carries a direct price," says Meir Javedanfar, who co-authored a book on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "Compared to other Israel attacks on Arab soil, in this case the silence from the Arab world is deafening."

SUNNI ARAB WORRIES OVER BALANCE OF POWER

US-allied Sunni Arab nations such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia have long been concerned about Iran's growing influence in the Middle East, including its meddling in Iraq and the Shiite-dominated nation's assistance to Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group in Lebanon.

Now, the growing assistance Iran has been giving to Hamas could tip the balance between the Islamist militants, who rule the Gaza Strip, and the Western-backed government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank.

The attacks were thought to target a supply corridor suspected of running from Iran around the Gulf Peninsula, through Sudan into Egypt, and then through Palestinian-dug tunnels to the Gaza Strip.

Sudan, whose president was recently indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes and crimes against humanity, has a reputation as a den of lawlessness. The country's weak international standing made it a convenient target for Israel compared to Egypt, with which it has close ties.

Outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declined to confirm or deny the attack last week, but dropped a hint: "There is no place where the state of Israel cannot act. We operate near and far, and carry out strikes in a manner that strengthens our deterrence."

The attacks in late January and early February reportedly hit a convoy of trucks, killing as many as 50 smugglers. There were also reports of an Israeli attack on an Iranian ship around the same time. Sudan confirmed the attacks on the trucks, but didn't put the blame on Israel.

A WARNING TO IRAN

The attacks are viewed by Israeli analysts as a warning to Iran about stepped up support for Hamas. If the Islamic militants were able to get hold of rockets capable of hitting Tel Aviv, it could shift the balance of deterrence between Hamas and Israel.

Sudan joins Lebanon and Syria on the list of countries that Western-backed Sunni Arab countries are concerned about regarding the expanding military influence of Iran.

In September 2007, Israeli jets bombed a site in Syria that US and Israeli intelligence analysts suspected of being a partially built nuclear reactor, a claim Syria denied.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak complained during Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir's visit to Cairo last week about Sudan serving as a weapons conduit to Gaza, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing anonymous diplomatic sources.

"Sudan is Egypt's backyard. The Egyptians are worried about Iran just as much as we are," said Yoav Stern, an Arab affairs commentator for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. "They can't say it publicly as we can, but they are very concerned about what Iran is doing in the region. I don't think they are sorry that Israel is doing the dirty work."

Still, the air strike has raised uncomfortable questions for Egypt.

Smuggled weapons traveling from Eastern Sudan to Gaza would have to pass through Egypt's Red Sea governorate, which covers the country's entire eastern coast from Suez to Sudan. It is sparsely populated, with an interior dotted by Christian monasteries and occasional land mines from Egypt's wars with Israel and a coastline studded with expensive beach resorts.

Its highways are also carefully watched by the Egyptian military, and the region contains several closed military zones. It is hard to imagine that Egypt's security forces would be unaware of weapons-laden truck convoys crossing over from Sudan.

Government reaction to the incident has been muted.

"The Egyptian government has rejected Israel's accusations and its reaction has been very reserved," says Nabil Abdel Fattah, Assistant Director of the Ahram Center, a government-backed think tank. "There are many different processes used to transship arms from Iran to Hamas in Gaza, and going through Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea to the Sinai is just one of them."

IRAN'S GROWING TIES TO SUDAN

During a four-day visit to Sudan earlier this month, Iranian Defense Minister Mohammad Najjar pointed to ties with Sudan as the linchpin of Iran's strategy of expanding relations with Africa, according to the Tehran Times.

Sudanese Defense Minister Abdelrahim Hussein called the visit a "turning point" in bilateral ties added that "Sudan is ready to expand ties with Iran in all fields," the Times reported.

Mr. Stern speculated that this week's Arab summit would issue a statement on the reported attacks.

Liam Stack contributed to this report from Cairo.

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