Thursday, January 8, 2004

Libya’s decision to give up its nuclear and other unconventional weapons programs opens up new diplomatic and economic prospects for the entire North African region, Tunisian Foreign Minister Habib Ben Yahia said in an interview.

But he cautioned that the still-unsettled conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and the West Bank have fueled doubts throughout the Islamic world and made it more difficult for the Bush administration to pursue its global war on terrorism.

“The preliminary analysis [on the U.S.-led war in Iraq] is not so good in our region,” Mr. Yahia said in an interview with editors and reporters at The Washington Times on Wednesday.

“Not just in Iraq, but in Afghanistan and the Israeli-Palestinian situation — all these situations have unfolded without a solution yet. That is contaminating a number of countries, because people looking to commit more terrorist acts are drawn to these troubled areas,” he said.

“Tunisia stands strongly for the global war on terrorists, using military means when we must but also using our brains,” Mr. Yahia added, arguing ultimately that the war on terrorism must be directed through the United Nations.

Considered a moderating force in the region by U.S. analysts, Tunisia has been lavishly praised by the Bush administration for its behind-the-scenes role in helping Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi move toward surrendering his weapons of mass destruction programs and making restitution for past terrorist acts.

Tunisian President Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali, who has ruled the country since 1987, will make his first official trip to Washington in 14 years next month. He and Mr. Bush are expected to reveal plans to begin talks on a bilateral free-trade agreement.

Mr. Yahia said in the interview that a real rapprochement between neighboring Libya and the West “would be very important for Tunisia’s own security and economic future.”

“Libya has the longest Mediterranean coastline of any African state, and this could be a zone of cooperation rather than a zone of tension for us,” he said.

He said Tunisia has been able to combat terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism through a constant focus on economic development, education reform and expanded opportunities for women.

The country has not been immune to terrorist strikes: Al Qaeda operatives are believed to have been behind the April 2002 bombing of a synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba.

Some human rights and democracy activists have criticized Mr. Powell’s visit to Tunisia last month, noting that the press is tightly controlled and President Ben Ali, who took 99.44 percent of the vote in the 1999 election, has amended the constitution to stay on past the end of his scheduled term later this year.

Mr. Powell made an oblique reference to political reform in Tunisia during his visit, but Mr. Yahia said in the interview that democratic progress in his country will build on the social and economic gains already made.

“If there’s an Arab country that has done its homework [in preparing for political reform], it is Tunisia,” said Mr. Yahia. “We are not asking for two centuries. Just be patient with us.”

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