Middle East

Arab Press Eyes War on Terrorism with Unease

An Iraqi iman anxiously studies Babil, owned by Saddam Hussein's sons, in Baghdad, Sept. 12, 2001 (Photo: AFP).

With U.S. military strikes against Afghanistan underway, a cloud of unease has settled over a number of Arab capitals. The feeling is that the U.S.-led war on terrorism may spread beyond Afghanistan's borders and target Arab countries, such as Iraq and Syria, accused by Washington of supporting terrorism. "America may increase the use of force in the coming days, and it may target other countries and figures as it sees fit in order to settle certain scores," state-run Iraqi TV stated Oct. 7, no doubt expressing the regime's anxiety over reports that Baghdad could be a target down the road.

Such fears have been heightened by the mixed messages emanating from the Bush administration. While U.S. officials have indicated no firm decision on expanding the war militarily they have kept the possibility alive. Emile Khoury, writing in the Oct. 12 edition of independent Lebanese newspaper Al-Nahar, pointed out that after Jordan's King Abdullah announced he had received assurances from Washington that no Arab state would be targeted in the military assault, U.S. officials contradicted him by refuting this claim. This uncertainty has fostered uneasiness in Arab nations and has triggered criticisms from the Arab press.

"We are now amidst a new war," declared Abdel Bari Atwan, editor in chief of the Palestinian expatriate Al-Quds al-Arabi of London (Oct. 8). "We know what triggered it, but we don't know how it will end. Americans speak about a war extending 10 years. President George Bush refuses to assure Arab leaders that Arab nations will not be targeted, specifically Iraq." Atwan says that members of the U.S. Congress have been urging the State Department to include Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as well as the Lebanese movement Hezbollah, to its list of terrorist organizations.

Egypt's government-owned Al-Ahram (Oct. 10) said that it is understandable to have equivocation and disagreement about tactical strategy in the war on terrorism but "What is not understandable is that there should be conflicting signals regarding a sensitive issue that has to do with the course of the present operation, and the possibility that it may move on to other regions." The editorial added that "the Americans are sending clear messages that their forces will carry out other operations against other countries and organizations. This is taking place while the United States has also supposedly agreed not to expand military operations into areas such as the Middle East."

According to Al-Ahram, such talk creates "confusion" that can have a "negative effect" on the international coalition against terrorism.

Echoing this sentiment, an editorial in Beirut's Daily Star (Oct. 13) said that although the United States has the right to respond to terrorism, it has "has laid down only vague standards as to precisely what various countries will have to do in order to avoid being branded uncooperative and subjected to economic sanctions, military action, or some combination thereof." The country the Daily Star has in mind is Syria, which Washington has left adrift in uncertainty. As the Daily Star put it, "President Bush addressed the possibility of Syria's rendering assistance by averring that 'we'll give them an opportunity to so.' But he quickly added a caveat to that statement, warning that 'I'm a performance-oriented person. I believe in results.' That is an admirable quality in any political leader, but given Washington's own track record in this part of the world, it was an unfortunate choice of words. It was Bush's father, after all, who initiated the historic Madrid Conference in 1991 [at the end of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union invited the leaders of Israel and its neighbors to discuss plans for a peace in the Middle East]. More than a decade later, the results have been paltry at best."

Widening the war risks causing greater public opposition in Arab countries and threatens the United States' regional coalition against terrorism. The United States should not be so near-sighted, according to Jordan's semi-official Al-Dustour. "We are afraid that the United States, as part of the 10-year plan it is calling a war on terrorism, will extend its military plans beyond Afghanistan's borders to include some Arab and Islamic countries that are on U.S. State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism," the paper said. "This will increase the expected repercussions of this war and lead to negative developments that affect the Arab and Islamic world. This will especially be the case if Israel's friends in Washington persuade the U.S. administration to strike Iraq, Sudan, or others in the later stages of this protracted war."

The author is Director of the Middle East Program at the Committee to Protect Journalists and a contributing editor at World Press Review

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