Arabs Relate to Tit for Tat, but Doubt US Motive

Many claim root cause of terror is US lack of an evenhanded approach in region

When American cruise missiles struck targets in Afghanistan and Sudan, the US move to "strike back at terrorism" was widely recognized across the Middle East as an act of revenge.

The Law of Moses - an eye for an eye - has been part of this region's political equation for millennia. So why the chorus of condemnation from Arab and Islamic regimes, and the seemingly universal rejection by Arab newspapers? Why do some claim that, far from hurting him, the bombings have elevated extremist financier Osama bin Laden?

Reasons for anger range from the American retaliation coming too quickly to the role of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

But the chief reason for such widespread opprobrium, analysts say, is that US policy toward the Mideast is often perceived as unjust, arrogant, and heavy-handed. They point to this administration's reluctance to pressure Israel, while Israel is seen to be responsible for the collapse of the Mideast peace process.

Also cited is Washington's hot-and-cold conflict with Iraq, and the presence of 20,000 American troops in the Persian Gulf to "protect" oil-rich allies - an "occupation of the Holy places," in Mr. bin Laden's words.

Roots of the conflict

Without any policy adjustment, they say, no long-term "war" against terrorism will ever be successful, because it will never get at the political roots that spawn such violence.

"The 'No. 1' problem is the peace process," says one Syrian analyst who asked not to be named. "Arab anti-Americanism is not genuinely anti-American: It is directly related to the Israel-Arab conflict.

"No one I know supports the Africa bombings," he says. "Nobody disagrees that the US has the right to track down terrorists. But the US approach is getting silly." This analyst echoes many others in considering a more measured response.

"If we can bring Saddam Hussein to justice in the Security Council, then why not the Afghans and Sudan?" he says.

The recent events - the dual bombings on Aug. 7 of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the retaliatory cruise-missile strikes last Thursday - have all occurred on the periphery of this region. Missiles were launched at "terrorist bases" in Afghanistan and a factory in Sudan the US claimed made materials used to make chemical agents. But the issues exposed get to the heart of the unfolding Mideast drama.

The challenge and necessity of policy adjustment as part of "striking back" was described by former CIA Director Robert Gates last week in The New York Times. Mr. Gates noted there is "no quick, clean or conclusive end to retribution against terrorists," and that "we will never prevent all - or even most - such acts."

But Gates noted "policies and strategies that in the long term weaken terrorism's roots.

"We can pursue a peace in the Middle East that does not kowtow to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's obstructionism...."

"We can carefully pursue a nascent dialogue" with Iran's moderate president, Gates wrote, that "does not play into the hands of his militant domestic adversaries - who may see terrorism against America as hitting two birds with one stone."

That view was echoed in an editorial in the English-language Arab News, based in Saudi Arabia, one of America's closest allies in the region: "There is no attempt [by Washington] to look at what causes the sort of attacks [in Kenya and Tanzania]. There is no willingness to realize that many of its foreign policies, above all its constant support for the Israelis in political, military, moral, and financial terms, have for 50 years fueled anti-American sentiments in so many parts of the world."

Arab News editor Khaled al-Maeena says that the US strikes "stirred the hornet's nest even more," in part owing to the Lewinsky scandal. "Clinton has no credibility anymore because this has become a soap opera across the Arab world."

"American credibility is zero, which is bad for its image," confirms Farid al-Khazen, an associate professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. "Now that the peace process is dead, this definitely gives more credence to those who condemn the US operation."

Still, he says that Washington's labeling its new "war" against terrorism is an "exaggeration."

"Of course, US pressure against Israel and better relations with Arabs means that the public reaction would have been different," Mr. Al-Khazen says. "But these extremist groups are not going to disappear. This is not the kind of war you can lose or win."

Some critics of the US strikes assert that, while striking back at enemies hard and fast has for years been a staple Mideast reaction, they don't expect it of Americans who profess law and order. Because revenge is such a common mindset, however, many here - despite declarations that US strikes are "a terrorist response to a terrorist act" - understand the US impulse, and note many similar approaches.

Tradition of hitting back

* Syria set a high standard in 1982, when President Hafez al-Assad put an end to the "problem" of the Muslim Brotherhood by completely destroying the stronghold town of Hama, killing some 20,000 people.

* NATO-ally Turkey has engaged in a violent war against the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Tens of thousands of civilians have died in the course of the campaign, and hundreds of thousands of ethnic Kurds have been uprooted from their homes.

* US-ally Egypt has used brutal methods roundly condemned by human rights groups to undermine Islamic extremists that have been responsible for attacks against foreign tourists.

* Sudan itself has vowed to wage a jihad, or holy war, against Christian and animist rebels in the south, and for years brutalized the conflict with young shock troops who ran into battle in human waves.

* Algeria's war between the hard-line military government and a small number of extremist guerrillas - who fight in the name of Islam, despite condemnation from clerics. Algeria has not hesitated to use torture, disappearance, and executions, human rights experts say.

* Iraqi President Saddam Hussein sought to uproot northern Kurds during the "Anfal campaign" of 1988, which left as many as 110,000 dead. In what is believed to be the first-ever use of poison gas against civilians, the town of Halabja was targeted with mustard gas that same year, leaving 5,000 dead.

* Iran, in the early years of the 1979 Islamic revolution, took its battle against guerrillas of the Mujahideen al-Khalq (MKO) and other opponents to their countries of exile, reportedly assassinating several hundred. The State Department recently called Iran the "most active" state sponsor of terrorism.

* Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority has at times taken a very tough line against anti-peace-process Islamist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which have claimed responsibility for a string of suicide bombings in Israel in the past years. Torture and disappearances are routinely reported in PA areas.

* Israel officially permits the use of "moderate physical pressure" in interrogations. Another ruling allows Lebanese detainees to be held as "hostages" for exchange later. During Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, hundreds of Palestinian refugees were massacred by the Maronite-led Lebanese Forces - allies of Israel who had been let into the Sabra and Chatila camps by Israeli troops. Between 1,000 and 1,500 civilian "terrorists" were killed.

An Israeli inquiry found that Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, who today holds a prominent position in Netanyahu's hard-line government, bore "personal responsibility."

Israel has also assassinated opponents abroad, reserving the "right to fight terrorists everywhere." In September a Mossad hit squad bungled an attempt on the life of Khaled Mishal, a Hamas leader, in Jordan.

An 'internal war' for US?

So into this maelstrom of eye-for-an-eye realpolitik came the American missiles. In response, bin Laden has declared that "the war has not yet begun."

"Most of us feel that this is an internal American war, between the US and their agents," says the Syrian analyst, referring to the active CIA support of the original Afghan "freedom fighters" to battle the Soviet invasion of 1979.

Bin Laden fought there and supported the effort with cash.

"It's a network established by professionals, by the CIA, and its working," he says. "It's a Frankenstein monster. You created it, and now you have to fight it."

But in Cairo, Salama Ahmed Salama, managing editor of the semiofficial Al-Ahram newspaper, says the unilateral US move invites the "law of the jungle."

"This is a hasty action to prove that the Americans have a long hand, and was made [by Clinton] for very personal reasons," says Mr. Salama. "The danger is that it gives many parties the freedom to act."

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