- Before Iraq had unravelled, Tony Blair last November
delivered one of his most impassioned defences of the war at the Lord Mayor's
banquet. He was hoping to undercut critics before President Bush's visit.
Iraq, he said, was "the battle of seminal importance for the early
21st century. It will define relations between the Muslim world and the
west. It will influence profoundly the development of Arab states and the
Middle East. It will have far-reaching implications for the future of American
and western diplomacy." The prime minister was right - but a decade
late in understanding the centrality of Iraq in the current world order.
It was the first Gulf war in 1991 and the accompanying sanctions and stationing
of US troops in Saudi Arabia that had driven deep cleavages in relations
between Islam and the west. More important, it had given rise to the age
of global terror - beginning with the first World Trade Centre bombing
in 1993. In the decades of Palestinian and Arab anger at the US for its
close support of Israeli occupation, it had never before been targeted
except in the Middle East.
- To say this is not to underestimate the impact of the
current war and occupation of Iraq, which have made the US a reviled power
in the Arab and Muslim world, and are creating powerful new hatreds globally
and seeing thousands of terrorist recruits joining the anti-US battle.
Most of the world had opposed this war in fear of just such an outcome,
but it now seems to feel powerless to influence the US in the face of Washington's
determination to "stay the course".
- In most countries, Bush is held responsible for the terror
crisis, but this is unfair. The groundwork for the crisis was laid by President
Bush Sr and his European and Arab partners who, in 1990, went along with
his decision to mete out severe punishment to Iraq for its invasion of
Kuwait. Many had warned of unprecedented Muslim fury if Iraq were attacked,
since the UN had never before approved the use of force to counter an invasion.
More important, Israel had for years been allowed to occupy Palestine and
parts of Syria and Lebanon with impunity.
- But the US, flexing its muscles as the sole superpower,
was not to be deterred - and the war was ruthlessly prosecuted. Martti
Ahtisaari, the then UN under-secretary general (and later Finnish president)
went to Iraq to assess the damage. He told the general assembly: "The
conflict has wrought near-apocalyptic results and most means of modern
life have been destroyed."
- Worse was to follow, with the most punitive sanctions
in modern history destroying Iraqi society and claiming the lives of at
least half a million children.
- But the predicted upheavals in Arab countries allied
to the US failed to materialise after the war, and there was public glee
in the nascent neoconservative movement, which saw in this the validation
of its view that the US had been too constrained in using force in its
Middle East dealings. No one was particularly interested in seeing the
profound alienation that was developing among Muslims worldwide, and the
related establishment of a global terrorist network.
- The world again seems powerless to influence the US in
the face of the even more rapid growth of anti-western sentiment resulting
from the current war. There is no graver challenge than stemming the growth
of terrorism practised by aggrieved Muslims. The rise of such militancy
is driven by US policies and cannot be glossed over with self-serving assertions
that "they" hate western freedoms and are inherently barbaric
and uncivilised. Beheadings are indeed so, but so is the killing of over
600 innocent Fallujans in a week of aerial bombing, or the death of 500,000
children through UN sanctions.
- The depth of this anti-US animus is recent. Muslims and
Arabs gravitated towards the US for decades, and worked closely with Washington
to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. But even the most moderate
now see the US as bent on crushing Islam.
- There is only one way to confront the terrorism challenge,
which is for the US to extend Muslims a hand of friendship and embrace
their legitimate causes. This would allow Muslims themselves to confront
those who might still continue to practise terror. But merely rolling back
the aggressive Bush administration policies will not be sufficient to win
Muslim trust; many more far-reaching changes than are part of current US
political discourse are needed.
- In the quest for peace, a just solution to the Palestinian
crisis remains a vital priority, but we should discount wishful assertions
that ending that conflict will make indirect US dominion over Iraq more
acceptable. Over the past 14 years Iraq has for millions replaced Palestine
as the touchstone of Muslim pain. A beginning must be made there, and a
UN mission given the responsibility for reconciling that torn nation.
- - Salim Lone is the former director of communications
for the UN mission in Iraq
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