- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 17, 2001

The United States and Saudi Arabia clashed yesterday over U.S. efforts to win a propaganda war with Osama bin Laden for the support of hundreds of millions of Muslims.

The Saudis say America must rein in its overt support for Israel and show sympathy for the Palestinians while the United States says it always has backed peace in the region.

"There is a battle for hearts and minds. There's a lot of disinformation and we have difficulty getting our message out particularly in the Muslim world," State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said yesterday.

"We've been the best friend to the peace process."

A senior Saudi diplomat said making progress on the Palestinian issue was critical to winning Arab and Muslim friends.

"If you really want to win the hearts and minds of Muslims, talk about the Palestinians," said Jaffar Allagany, chief of the information section of the Saudi Embassy in Washington.

In an interview, Mr. Allagany said the Muslim world held deep resentment over U.S. backing for "more than 355 anti-Arab U.N. resolutions" and its supplies of jets, helicopters and munitions used by Israel against Palestinians.

"What is the [5,000 deaths] in the World Trade Center compared to 5,000 [Palestinian] houses destroyed in two years the number of people killed is more than 10,000."

An Israeli Embassy official disputed the Saudi diplomat's charges.

"Those numbers are ridiculous, his comment is obscene," said Israeli Embassy spokesman Mark Regev. He pointed out that news reports listed about 650 Palestinian deaths since the uprising or intifada began in September 2000.

The Saudi diplomat did say that if Israel and the Palestinians reached a peace, Saudi Arabia would endorse it.

"We would support [acceptance of] Israel if the Palestinians accept it," he said.

The United States is seeking the widest possible support from Islamic countries for its war against terrorism and the al Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden and his backers, meanwhile, have tried to widen anti-American demonstrations in several countries by portraying the U.S. air campaign as a war against Muslims.

"We are working now 24 hours a day and seven days a week in a special task force team within a task force at the State Department" to counter that perception, Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Charlotte Beers told a meeting last week of the House International Relations Committee.

She said a huge effort had been started to counter any negative image America may have in the Muslim world.

"We do constant monitoring of reactions, and hopefully we can develop responses just as quickly," the former advertising executive said.

Even before the U.S. attacks in Afghanistan, residents of the Arab and Muslim world harbored unpleasant stereotypes of Americans.

They include the notion that American women are without shame and sexually available, that Muslims are abused and despised in the United States, and that Americans have no moral compass other than the values of the television series "Dallas" and "Dynasty."

"The riots we see in the streets of Indonesia and Pakistan, two nations we have helped enormously since they gained independence, is proof positive that we are losing this aspect of the war," Rep. Tom Lantos, California Democrat, told the House panel last week.

The anti-American demonstrations so far have been relatively small, failing to attract the vast majority of the 140 million Muslims in Pakistan and the 220 million in Indonesia. But claims by Afghanistan's ruling Taliban of hundreds of civilian casualties from the air strikes have been winning them sympathy.

Mrs. Beers heads overseas information programs once handled by the U.S. Information Agency before it was absorbed by the State Department.

She said the task force is sending articles and other information to U.S. embassies around the world to counter disinformation spread by pro-Taliban groups.

Mr. Lantos and others on the panel complained that more money should be spent on airing Arabic and Afghan-language broadcasts over the Voice of America or other U.S. radio stations.

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