- The Washington Times - Friday, July 28, 2006

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has called events from Somalia to Afghanistan the “birth pangs of a new Middle East,” but recent events across the region and a stark warning from a top terrorist leader yesterday indicate the labor will be long, painful and beset by unexpected complications.

Al Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahri issued a call for a global Muslim holy war to exploit the Israeli-Hezbollah clash.

In a videotaped message broadcast on the Al Jazeera network, Osama bin Laden’s top aide called on Muslims to reclaim all the land he said had been lost to Israel and its Western backers.

“This is a holy war for the sake of God and will last until our religion prevails from Spain to Iraq,” the Egyptian-born al-Zawahri said.

The outbreak of regional violence this month is proving only the latest obstacle to President Bush’s vision of a transformed Middle East and a post-September 11 political revolution in the crescent of Muslim states from Central Asia to North Africa.

Instead of a new cadre of democratic governments friendly to the West and at peace with Israel, the region now features at least four countries — Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Lebanon — in which the government is struggling to establish control and carry out the basic functions of a sovereign state.

Israel and the United States have thus far failed to curb the Islamic militant Hamas and Hezbollah movements, and Iran, seen by many as the one unambiguous winner in the recent crises, is the one government implacably hostile to the Washington’s agenda in the region.

“What is happening in the region is destructive chaos, not creative chaos,” Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told reporters in Cairo Tuesday.

Saudi King Abdullah has appealed directly to President Bush to try to end the Lebanon fighting, warning it could spark a larger conflict.

“Saudi Arabia warns everybody that if the peace option fails because of Israeli arrogance, there will be no other option but war,” the king said in a statement this week. “No one can predict what will happen if things get out of control.”

Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser under President Carter, said radicalism in the Arab world was increasing because of the U.S. failure to make progress in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and because of fallout from the fateful decision to invade Iraq in 2003.

“I frankly don’t understand what that phrase ‘birth pangs’ means,” he said. “The notion of some sort of grand upheaval in the Middle East, out of which democracy will then emerge, I think is a rather risky proposition.”

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said Israel’s fight is just one front in a “World War III,” linked to U.S. struggles against Islamist terrorism, North Korean nuclear missiles and the Iranian-Syrian axis.

“This is absolutely a question of the survival of Israel, but it’s also a question of what is really a world war,” Mr. Gingrich said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” this week.

A new survey released yesterday by the polling firm Zogby International found that nearly one in five Americans believes that the Israeli-Hezbollah clash will lead to world war, while an additional 29 percent think the fighting will produce a regional war dragging in a number of Middle East powers.

But Mr. Brzezinski and others dismiss the fears that the current fighting will lead to global war.

“Let’s not exaggerate,” he said. “We are dealing here with a difficult local militia that has a fair amount of popular support in its own territory, and it’s gaining support in the region. But this is not World War III.”

For the Bush administration’s ambitious agenda to transform the region, the “demonstration effect” that popularly elected governments in Kabul, Baghdad and Beirut were supposed to have on other Muslim states has been overshadowed by the insecurity plaguing Afghanistan and Iraq.

Miss Rice has steadfastly defended the U.S. approach, resisting heavy international pressure to back an immediate cease-fire in Lebanon that does not deal decisively with Hezbollah’s threat both to Israel and to Lebanon’s central government.

“I am a student of history, so perhaps I have a little bit more patience with the enormous changes in the international system and the complete shifting of tectonic plates,” she told reporters yesterday on a plane trip to Asia after an unsuccessful effort to negotiate an enduring cease-fire at an international conference in Rome.

But a survey of the region finds plenty of crises that challenge the optimistic long-term vision, even beyond Iraq and Lebanon.

Fundamentalist Taliban fighters have regrouped in southern Afghanistan, sparking the bloodiest fighting in the country since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 helped oust the Islamists and install President Hamid Karzai.

“In parts of the south the Taliban are in complete control, and even in Kabul, the government only really rules during the daytime,” said a senior regional diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

In Somalia, a shadowy group of Islamists has seized control in Mogadishu, threatening to spark a regional war and raising U.S. concerns the country could become a new haven for al Qaeda and other militant groups.

“For the U.S., there are just a lot of holes in the dike right now, and each one is threatening in its own way,” said Daniel Benjamin, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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