On Mideast, US response conflicted

The Yassin killing points up different visions of terror war.

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.

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."

The Yassin assassination, while arguably not so different from the US policy of killing top Al Qaeda leaders including Osama bin Laden, is nevertheless a reminder that America's and Israel's goals in their battles with terrorism are not one and the same. "America's and Israel's interests overlap but are not identical. But this was a reminder that when Israel does things, its best ally the US is likely to be blamed," says Raymond Tanter, a Middle East specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy Studies with close ties to the Bush administration. "America is a global power with very broad interests, while Israel is a regional power. The administration didn't come to a realization yesterday," he says, "that their interests aren't always going to overlap."

Still, the closeness and political inviolability of the US-Israeli relationship means that Israel's action - especially when carried out with US-supplied military hardware - is going to make US goals more difficult.

"The assassination complicates the US position in the world and in the Middle East in particular," says Mr. Tanter. Pointing to anti-US demonstrations in Yemen, where a friendly government has worked closely with the US on counterterror measures, he says, "This complicates our standing and ability to work in friendly countries. It puts off our ability to get the road map [for Israeli-Palestinian peace] back on track, and it sets back the chances of getting the Middle East partnership initiative they're talking about revved up."

Although the Bush administration's visceral reaction to the Yassin killing may have been one of close association, as Georgetown's Hudson says, other observers say the worry that the act will set off a chain of violence and hardening perceptions in the region led to the more tempered US response.

"The danger is that we're going to have another big round of violence, and one that might start striking outside the normal boundaries," says Stephen Cohen, national scholar at the Israel Policy Forum in New York. By that he says he means strikes at US interests, as Hamas first warned, he says.

"The big temptation," says Mr. Cohen, is that in the absence of Yassin, Hamas and the Palestinians in general will turn to more extremist Shiite Muslim leaders - an eventuality that no one in the Arab world would work to head off in this context, he adds. "Nobody [in the Arab world] is going to be stepping up to the plate right now in a public way to show they are cutting support for Hamas."

Cohen says the further hardening of Palestinian leadership can be laid at the feet of a US failure to carry through on its early goal of cultivating a new and moderate group of leaders. That failure exemplifies the lack of attention to the softer, people-oriented side of US policy in the Middle East, but he says he doesn't expect that to change any time before the November elections.

Noting the administration's focus on Iraq and the war on terror, Cohen says, "Do I think the US in light of this [assassination] is going to change its approach of keeping the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict on the back burner? My answer is no."

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