- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 15, 2002

RABAT, Morocco Talk of a U.S. military strike against Iraq is feeding public anger toward the United States, threatening the stability of one of the most firmly pro-American governments in the region.

Sympathy for Islamic fundamentalist groups is at an all-time high, which does not bode well for the government, a long-standing friend and ally of the United States, in scheduled elections next month.

Warm relations between the nations date from 1777, when Morocco became the first country to recognize America's independence from Britain. The United States returned the favor after World War II, pressuring France to end its colonial hold on the North African country.

But in recent weeks, harsh criticism of the United States is being heard from across the political spectrum, with America's uncritical support of Israel and its threats of military action against Iraq the most frequent complaints.

"We have nothing against Americans," said Cherif Bel Fkih, a reform-minded American-educated university dean, "but its foreign policy is deplorable."

A business executive with close ties to the Islamist movement put it even more bluntly: "George Bush is the worst president ever, as far as the Middle East conflict is concerned."

King Mohammed VI has remained steadfast in his support for the United States, but is finding that stance increasingly costly.

His popularity is also suffering from a stubborn unemployment rate of more than 30 percent and an illiteracy rate above 50 percent mostly in rural areas.

Morocco, commanding the southern side of the Strait of Gibraltar, is an important strategic ally whose importance was demonstrated when Secretary of State Colin L. Powell personally intervened last month to settle a dispute between Morocco and Spain over an uninhabited islet off the Moroccan coast.

The dispute, which prompted a military response by Spain, demonstrated the sharp divisions between North African Muslims and Europe that are driving many well-educated youths into the arms of radical fundamentalist movements.

Even the most progressive forces perceive a widening gulf between the Arab world and the United States, and thus embrace more visibly their Muslim identity. Increasingly, young women cover their heads with the veil, or hijab, as an expression of solidarity with Palestinians.

The Moroccan government has been cooperating in the U.S.-led war on terrorism even though the population, as in most Arab countries, is more concerned about the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians.

A probe for local links to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network has led to a broader examination of all fundamentalist movements.

The most prominent of these, Al Adl wa Ihsane (Justice and Charity), is unusual in its explicitly nonviolent approach. Still, the banned movement led by the charismatic Sheikh Abdesalam Yassine aspires toward nothing less than a theocratic Islamic state.

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