Friday, November 30, 2001

Moderate Arab leaders say they got a big boost in public support in their own countries from the rout of the Taliban and its al Qaeda allies in Afghanistan.
Osama bin Laden, who had been gaining heroic stature in many Arab eyes through his defiance of the United States, has been ridiculed in some Arab newspapers since the Taliban collapsed and the suspected terror kingpin went into hiding in the past two weeks.
“The quicker the war, the more positive the impact” on U.S.-Arab relations, said Tunisian Ambassador Hatem Atallah during an interview at The Washington Times this week.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair and others had warned a few weeks ago that the West was losing the “propaganda war” for the support of the Arab and Islamic public.
But with widespread scenes of Afghans celebrating their liberation from the Taliban being televised around the world, “people could feel more comfortable,” the ambassador said.
“The message was that the war was [not against Muslims but] against terrorism, al Qaeda and the regime that harbored it,” he said.
Other Arab visitors to Washington have made the same point in recent days.
Hamed Fahmy, vice president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt, said yesterday that Cairo newspapers recently published photographs of American soldiers surrounded by happy, smiling children.
Jafar Hassan, deputy chief of mission at the Jordanian Embassy in Washington, said, “Actual hostilities are coming to an end and that will diminish civilian suffering. That’s a good beginning because collateral damage is a major source of domestic pressure.”
Another Washington-based Arab diplomat, who asked not to be identified, said the Bush administration had helped make its case by sending a negotiating team headed by former U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni to the Middle East this week.
“The timing showed genius at the same time as the United States defeated the Taliban, it declared an initiative in the Middle East. That proved that the war was not against Islam,” the diplomat said.
Other analysts and academics following Middle East affairs said hard-line activists in the region are on the defensive.
“I could see the change in the cartoons in newspapers there is much more willingness to poke fun at bin Laden,” said one analyst with close ties to the Bush administration.
But the diplomats and specialists said it will be hard for Arab nations to support any extension of the war on terrorism to other countries, such as Iraq, unless there is clear evidence of a link to the September 11 attacks and progress in the Arab-Israeli peace process.
Hassan Abdel Rahman, the Washington representative of the Palestinian Authority, said the defeat of the Taliban and al Qaeda “gives more credibility” to U.S. peace efforts in the Middle East.
The victory in Afghanistan could lead to a broad rejection of anti-Western extremists in the Muslim world “if the United States uses the capital it achieved to solve other problems important to the Arab world,” he said.
Several Arabs diplomats said the Afghan campaign has shown how shallow support is for Islamic extremism in the Muslim world.
After the U.S. bombing began Oct. 7, about a dozen anti-American demonstrations took place in Pakistan, Indonesia and the Middle East. Within three weeks, street protests had essentially ended.
“No one will shed tears over bin Laden or al Qaeda,” said the Middle East specialist with administration ties. “Obviously, Allah is not with them or they would not have suffered such a great defeat.”
More moderate regimes are now willing to go after their own fundamentalists and confront them, he said.
But there is also a bitter aftertaste. Once again Muslims are getting beaten by a Western power. So efforts to revive the Palestinian-Israeli peace process are needed to counter that image, he said.

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