- The Washington Times - Friday, August 27, 2004

Pull out a map of the Middle East and give it a quick glance. With your eyes closed, run your hand over the area, randomly stopping over any part of the Arab world. Chances are your finger will point at a country in turmoil. And by the looks of it, conditions are not about to improve any time soon.

Despite attempts — and the best of intentions — importing democracy to the Middle East has not been a thriving venture.

In a self-flagellating editorial, the London-based Saudi daily al-Sharq al-Awsat deplored the violence sweeping through several Arab countries. The newspaper lamented that, no matter how the Middle East is viewed, only violence seems to prevail and “the language of arms” is triumphing over dialogue and peace.

“In Yemen, there is no news but that of the army offensive against the rebellious cleric Hussein Badreddine al-Houthy, and the killing of scores of innocent civilians,” the newspaper said.

“In Iraq, we only hear the sounds of the fighting raging in Najaf and news of the kidnapping of foreigners and sabotaging of oil pipelines.” Indeed, Najaf has turned into somewhat of a dilemma for the U.S. military fighting an urban guerrilla war with maverick Shi’ite cleric Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr, something they definitely wanted to avoid. The fighting, revolving around the Imam Ali shrine, Shi’ism’s holiest site, risks infuriating Muslims even more as U.S. troops inch closer to the shrine every day.

Already the rector of Cairo’s al-Azhar University, considered the seat of Islam orthodoxy, has called for an immediate halt in fighting. And this is from Sunnis, who have long considered Shi’ites to be heretics.

Just back from London, where he underwent surgery, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric, called for a march on “the burning city” of Najaf to stop the fighting. Though he commands no militia or armed faction, Ayatollah al-Sistani has the power to conscript millions of followers. A protest march on the holy shrine could further inflame a very precarious situation.

In neighboring Iran, the ayatollahs pursue their desire to become a nuclear power, though they say the Busherh (and other) facilities will only produce nuclear energy for peaceful means. The danger, of course, is the nearly impossibility of policing how spent nuclear rods — which can be used to make nuclear weapons — are processed and what happens to them.

Meanwhile, the possibility looms of an Israeli pre-emptive raid a la Osirak-1981, when Israeli jets destroyed Iraq’s nuclear plant.

The London paper mentions Sudan, where some of the most horrendous racial/ethnic cleansing, mass murder, rape and savagery is reported. Others in the 22-member Arab League seem to shrug off news of government-supported Janjaweed Arab militias attacking black tribes, killing hundreds and leaving tens of thousands more to starve to death as war, fear and famine in the Darfur region rage unabated.

The U.N. coordinator of humanitarian affairs in Sudan, Manuel Arnado Da Silva, warned Wednesday that $434 million is urgently needed to finance rescue operations there. The total annual need is an estimated $722 million.

In Algeria, the civil war that killed nearly 100,000 officially is supposedly over but “we only hear about Muslim extremists who massacre civilians in the countryside and Algerian villages,” the Saudi paper said. Eight soldiers and intelligence officers were killed in two separate attacks Wednesday by Muslim extremists in eastern Algeria, security sources said.

A day earlier, 30 armed militants attacked a military surveillance patrol in BoumedrasProvince, 60 kilometers (37 miles) east of Algiers, spraying it with automatic fire and rockets. Five soldiers and two intelligence officers were killed and 13 wounded — as well as a boy, an innocent bystander.

Saudi Arabia, long a haven of tranquility, has over the last few months gone through a spate of unrest and gunfights between pro-al Qaeda insurgents and security forces. The videotaped, brutal beheading of a kidnapped U.S. worker sent a shockwave through the kingdom’s large expatriate community.

Renouncing violence, regrettably seems unlikely in much of the Middle East, not least in Palestinian territories where Israel recently announced plans to build more than 2,000 new housing units. “Israel,” says Diana Buttu, Palestine Liberation Organization legal adviser, “announced its intention to build 2,114 units. It is estimated that these housing units will bring an additional 17,000 settlers into the occupied West Bank.

“While claiming that it will ‘evacuate’ an estimated 7,300 settlers from the occupied Gaza Strip, Israel intends to bring in an additional 17,000 settlers into the occupied West Bank.

Israel sees the matter very differently. “We are taking historic steps to pull down the Gaza settlements,” an Israeli diplomat said, adding Israel is working closely with the U.S. on the issue.

“At the same time,” continued Miss Buttu, “the Bush administration has announced that it will continue to allow Israel to expand its colonies, in violation of international law, the International Court of Justice and the Road Map.”

At the same time, Palestinians kill other Palestinians. Wednesday, unidentified gunmen ambushed Brig. Gen. Tareq Abu Rajab, the Gaza Strip security forces commander, wounding him and killing his bodyguard.

“Are we a nation that is committing mass suicide?” the London-based Saudi paper asked. “Have the forces of good and peace been expelled leaving the ground free to violence and guns?” Its editorial said, “Civilized nations only become civilized when they renounce violence and get rid of the mentality of wars and fighting.” Good advice unlikely to be heeded.

Maybe it’s best to roll up that map and close one’s eyes again.

Claude Salhani is international editor of United Press International.

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