Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Arab rage at Israel’s assassination of the Hamas founder quickly spilled into Iraq yesterday, signaling that the killing of the Palestinian militant could undermine U.S. policies and interests across the region.

Protesters at two demonstrations against the U.S.-led coalition — one in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and the other in the southern city of Basra — chanted in support of Sheik Ahmed Yassin.

“Do not worry, Palestine. Iraq will avenge the assassination of Sheik Yassin,” protesters in Mosul chanted.

Israeli and U.S. officials stressed that Washington had not been told about the assassination plan. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher called the killing “deeply troubling.”

But the close political and military ties between the two countries — many Arab press outlets said U.S.-made missile launchers apparently had been used in the attack — almost certainly will make Americans a target for revenge.

Hamas officials yesterday for the first time directly threatened the United States and suggested that they may seek allies to retaliate against it and Israel. In the past, the group had not specifically targeted U.S. assets.

“The Zionists didn’t carry out their operation without getting the consent of the terrorist American administration and [the United States] must take responsibility for this crime,” Hamas said in a statement. “All the Muslims of the world will be honored to join in on the retaliation for this crime.”

Mr. Boucher said the threats “just show once again that [Hamas] is a terrorist group and that they’re bent on violence and on terrorism.”

In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak responded by canceling plans to send a delegation to ceremonies marking the 25th anniversary of the Camp David accords, the first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab nation.

“This will have reactions all across the Middle East,” Mr. Mubarak said, adding that the Israelis “did not consider that reaction before they did this deed.”

Even before the killing, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was virtually moribund, but the U.S. government has hopes for progress elsewhere in the region, from the reconstruction of Iraq to President Bush’s Greater Middle East Initiative promoting political and social change in the Arab world.

“The problem with the planned killing of someone like Sheik Yassin is that it will very likely only lead to a surge of support for hard-line Islamist movements, not just in the West Bank and Gaza, but across the Arab world,” said Lewis Roth.

Mr. Roth is the assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now, an American-Jewish group that has opposed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s tough line against Palestinian militants.

Several members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council expressed alarm over the killing.

“The terrorist networks will use it as justification for more attacks,” said Adnan al-Assadi, a member of the fundamentalist Shi’ite Dawa Party who serves on the council. “This could happen in Iraq because the Israelis are well protected in Israel and the Americans are more vulnerable here in Iraq.”

More ominously, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, the Shi’ite cleric who has emerged as the most influential voice in the debate over the country’s political future, yesterday issued a stinging condemnation of Israel.

“We call upon the core of the Arab and Islamic nations to close ranks, unite and work hard for the liberation of the usurped land,” the ayatollah said in a statement. He called the Yassin killing “an ugly crime against the Palestinian people.”

Separately, an Islamist group linked to terror network al Qaeda posted a message on its Web site yesterday, urging followers to avenge Sheik Yassin’s death by “attacking the tyrant of the age, America, and its allies.”

Some U.S. strategists had argued before the Iraq war that ousting Saddam Hussein would improve prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, eliminating an important Palestinian benefactor and increasing Israeli willingness to deal by removing a dangerous rival.

Sheik Yassin, in an interview with an Arab news service less than two months before the war in Iraq, explicitly linked U.S. policy toward Iraq with Israel’s hard line toward Palestinian militant groups.

“America is implementing Zionist Israel’s policy to serve the Zionist project in Palestine,” he said. “The battle is designed to allow Israel to remain in the Palestinian homeland.”

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