Muslim suspicions linger
By Mushahid Hussain
Inter Press Service via Asia Times
December 20, 2002
ISLAMABAD - A number of steps taken by the United States in December are
pointers to a military operation against Iraq early in 2003, irrespective
of the findings of United Nations inspectors or opposition from Muslim
Interestingly, even within the United States, resistance to any war
against Iraq is growing. An opinion poll in the Los Angeles Times,
released on December 17, said that 72 percent of Americans felt that
their government had thus far failed to provide sufficient evidence
regarding Iraq's alleged arsenal of weapons of mass destruction to
warrant a war. Sixty-eight percent felt that the US should go to war
"only if that military action has the support of the international
Muslim opinion can best be gauged by the opinion poll "What the World
Thinks in 2002", released in early December by the Washington-based Pew
Research Institute, which found a majority of people in Turkey, Egypt,
Pakistan, Indonesia, Jordan, Bangladesh and Lebanon opposed to a US
invasion of Iraq.
Turkey had 83 percent opposed to giving facilities for a US strike
against neighboring Iraq. Fifty-four percent felt that the war on terror
is actually turning out to be a war against Islam and Muslims.
It is in this context of a polarized public opinion that the United
States has mounted a major offensive that includes military, political
and media-related moves to cultivate ties with the Muslim world in
preparation for a war with Iraq. Three sets of steps are in motion.
The first step by Washington is its cultivation of relations with key
neighbors of Iraq, solidifying the encirclement of that targeted country.
It has separately solicited Turkey, Syria, Qatar and Iran.
Syria's President Bashar al Assad's invitation for a state visit to
Britain, carried out this week, was a reward for Syrian support in the UN
Security Council for sending inspectors to Iraq last month. The
expectation in this case is that Syria, as in the 1991 Gulf War, would
set aside its reservations and acquiesce to a US effort to dislodge an
old foe and rival.
Recip Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of Turkey's Islamist-based Justice and
Development Party that won the November 3 elections, was invited for an
unprecedented audience in Washington. He holds no government office, but
at the White House on December 10, he was told by Bush, "We're impressed
by your leadership and your party's strong victory. We join you side by
side in your desire to become a member of the European Union." Erdogan
did not specifically commit Turkey to allowing US use of its bases for an
invasion of Iraq, and he even hinted at a referendum to gauge popular
opinion before doing so. (And the country was rebuffed by the EU).
US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld travelled to Qatar on December 11,
where he signed an agreement for the use and upgrading of a new US$1
billion base, with a 15,000-feet runway. The al Udeid air base is a
likely choice for operations against Iraq, more so since Saudi Arabia and
Egypt have been reluctant to provide facilities for fear of offending
their domestic constituencies.
Even Iran, certified by the Bush administration as a member of the
so-called axis of evil along with Iraq and North Korea, is being wooed in
the context of a war against Iraq. On December 9, two key leaders opposed
to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and close to the US were in Tehran
negotiating with the pro-Iran, anti-Saddam Shi'ite Supreme Council for
Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Ahmad Chalabi, head of the Iraqi
National Congress, and Massoud Barzani, who leads the Kurdistan
Democratic Party, invited the SCIRI to attend a conference of the Iraqi
opposition in London last week, sponsored by the US.
The second major move of the United States has been to beef up the Iraqi
opposition. The London conference was the first such representative
meeting of Iraqi exiles, most of whom are being promised positions in a
post-Saddam Iraq. US media reports speak of a covert CIA operation under
way in northern Iraq, where CIA operatives are said to spending cash to
coopt key tribal chiefs and training an exile army, for which Hungary has
allowed use of its territory.
The third aspect of the US strategy is a media drive to win Muslim hearts
and minds. On December 12, US Secretary of State Colin Powell announced a
$29 million "Middle East Partnership" initiative aimed at economic
empowerment and education of women, plus political steps for democracy.
Saying that "too many Middle Easterners are ruled by closed political
systems", Powell also gave the somewhat startling statistic that "only 1
percent of Arabs have access to a computer".
This is clearly an endeavor to win Arab public opinion by distancing
itself from the rulers and talking about the interests of the ruled, most
of whom are dissatisfied with the status quo. This new initiative follows
an earlier effort in public relations, where $15 million was spent on
television advertising aimed at Muslim public opinion.
But despite this US charm offensive, why are Muslim regimes and public
opinion still reticent regarding the US-led war on terror, particularly
Iraq? The reasons are not hard to locate.
Without hard evidence from Washington, Muslim public opinion remains
skeptical of the reasons America wants to go to war against Iraq. Many
find it inexplicable how the war on terrorism, which had targeted Osama
bin Laden, has been transformed into an effort at regime change in Iraq.
Finally, most Muslims feel that Israel, not Iraq, is the main issue in
the Middle East, on which the US has talked of a "road map for a
Palestinian state" but has not matched these promises with action through
Perhaps as a sop to Muslim opinion, British Prime Minister Tony Blair
announced on December 16, when Assad was in London, that he was inviting
Palestinian leaders to London next month for a meeting on the
It is not an issue of solidarity with Saddam Hussein, whom most of his
own people and those in the region revile, and with good reason. It is
about the US agenda - its intentions in Iraq and what would follow
afterwards in the Muslim world.