Time ticks on US-led campaign

Arab allies squirm as Afghan casualties mount with no clear results to show.

A clock is ticking in the Middle East.

It represents the limited amount of time the United States and Britain have to complete the more sensitive aspects of the fight against terrorism and demonstrate tangible progress.

In the Arab world, the civilian casualties in Afghanistan are daily media fare. This week's anthrax cases in New York, Washington, and Florida are fueling concern that a US military response against Iraq is coming. Further complicating the picture is the prospect of a tit-for-tat assassination war between Israelis and Palestinians. Even here in Jordan, one of the closest Mideast allies of the US, public opinion is growing increasingly critical and anxious.

As a result, the already brittle resolve of America's regional partners in the counter-terrorism coalition is threatening to shatter, analysts say.

"I don't think it will be possible to sustain the support of governments in the Arab world ... much longer," says Mustafa el Sayeed of the Al-Ahram Strategic Center in Cairo.

Should key coalition partners such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan withdraw their support, the operation in Afghanistan would increasingly look like what Osama bin Laden has suggested it is - a Western crusade against Islam. It is potentially a highly potent rallying cry that would resonate across the Islamic world, not only from North Africa to Indonesia, but within the large Muslim communities in North America and Europe.

US officials regularly present their case on Al Jazeera, the regional cable network. But based on interviews here, few are persuaded. The daily images of warfare in Afghanistan are erasing the memory among people in the region of the Sept. 11 terror attacks in New York and Washington - attacks that prompted genuine concern and sympathy for America among the vast majority of Muslims. Instead, they now see the US as lashing out and creating even more innocent victims.

"The US is losing people's compassion for it every hour," says Hamzeh Mansour of the Islamic Action Front, an Islamist political party in Jordan. "In many mosques here, the devout are praying for an end to the war and to make the Afghanis victorious over the invading soldiers of the United States."

Almost two weeks into the US-led bombing attack on Afghanistan, moderate governments in the region find themselves in an increasingly tenuous position. On one side is President Bush with his stern warning to the world: "Either you are with us or against us." And on the other side is Mr. bin Laden, who has declared that the world is now divided into two camps - "the camp of the faithful, and the camp of the infidels."

For Saudi Arabia, an important strategic US ally and major source of oil, there is little room to maneuver. A respected Muslim cleric of the kingdom's own strict Wahhabi style of Islam recently issued a religious decree declaring that anyone who backs the infidel against Muslims is to be considered an infidel. The fatwa was directed at the royal family itself, in effect excommunicating it because of Saudi support in the US-led antiterrorism coalition now attacking the Taliban.

Saudi Arabia's level of commitment to the coalition is anything but certain. The Saudis have reportedly permitted the US to use a high-tech command and control facility at an air base southeast of Riyahd. But most Saudi officials remain silent on the US strikes, and one has publicly condemned them for causing too many civilian casualties.

"What coalition? Is there a coalition?" asks a diplomat in the region.

In Jordan, King Abdullah has a personal reason to join the fight against bin Laden and his associates. Al Qaeda reportedly targeted the king for assassination last summer, and an alleged member of bin Laden's group is currently on trial in Amman for plotting a Dec. 31, 1999, truck-bomb attack against a hotel filled with American and Israeli tourists.

There is another reason that Jordan is supporting the coalition. "I don't think they have a choice," says Hazem Momani, a member of the Jordanian parliament. "They [top Jordanian leaders] don't want to be in the same situation like in 1991."

During the Gulf War, the US assembled an international coalition to push the Iraqi army out of Kuwait. It not only was based on expressions of support from most Arab countries, but also included the sending of soldiers to fight alongside American and British troops. Egypt sent 36,000 men. Even Syria sent a contingent. But Jordan remained on the sidelines, reluctant to engage in an attack on a fellow Arab and Muslim country.

Jordan paid a high price, with the loss of economic and other support from the US and the Gulf states.

Wary of the potential for a backlash from their own Islamist communities or even a broader outcry from the population as a whole, security forces throughout the region are on a high state of alert. In some cases, public demonstrations have been outlawed or sharply restricted.

In Pakistan, the government has ordered several militant clerics to be held under house arrest to prevent them from stirring up resentment against the US. Saudi Arabia has reportedly taken similar steps, including the unusual action of banning Muslim clerics from declaring jihad.

Another potential flashpoint is the Palestinian-Israeli confrontation. In recent days, Israeli snipers shot a Palestinian carrying out Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's policy of extra-judicial killings of suspected terrorists (see related story, page 7). And on Wednesday, Palestinian gunmen assassinated Israeli tourism minister Rehavam Zeevi.

To many Muslims in the region, the current US attempt to kill Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar by dropping 5,000-pound bombs on his suspected hideouts looks like a carbon copy of Mr. Sharon's assassination policy. And that idea is already starting to undermine US support. "If it becomes [widely seen as] an American-Israeli war [against terrorism] in the Islamic world, that is extremely serious," says a Western diplomat.

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