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U.S. war threatens to set off a...
Powder keg

November 2, 2001 | Pages 6 and 7

THE U.S. is fighting a "war against terrorism." But only some terrorism.

George W. Bush used a convenient definition when he pledged that the U.S. war wouldn't end as long as "anyone is terrorizing established governments." Those who oppose "established governments" are terrorists--while any and all violence committed by "established governments" is fine, so long as those countries are U.S. allies.

Double standards like these are fueling anger across the Muslim world. "There is no justification for hitting Afghanistan under the slogan of justice while Israeli 'terrorism' is all over Palestine," Egypt's mainstream Al-Ahram newspaper wrote in an editorial.

But Israeli terror--made possible by massive U.S. aid and sophisticated U.S. weapons--is just the start. Among the U.S. government's favored allies in the "war against terrorism" are some of the most authoritarian and corrupt regimes in the Middle East.

In Pakistan, the military regime of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a coup two years ago, has gunned down demonstrators opposed to the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan. In Saudi Arabia, the bickering Saudi royal family rules with an iron fist--on the basis of a strict interpretation of Islamic law little different than the Taliban in Afghanistan.

U.S. support for such despots and dictatorships--while it drops the world's most advanced weapons on one of the poorest countries on Earth--could unleash popular uprisings throughout the Middle East and Central Asia.

Socialist Worker's ERIC RUDER, PHIL GASPER and LEE SUSTAR look at the powder keg in the Middle East.

Israel steps up the violence
Tough times to be a royal in Saudi Arabia
Pakistan's crisis grows deeper

Israel steps up the violence

AFTER THE assassination of Israel's racist Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi by Palestinians last week, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres threatened "a total bloodbath."

His government delivered. Israeli forces reoccupied six key Palestinian cities that are supposed to be under the full control of the Palestinian Authority (PA), killing 26 people, most of them civilians.

The U.S. government--desperate to hold together a fragile coalition of Arab countries behind its bombing of Afghanistan--told Israel to back off. But Israeli forces were just getting started.

A few days later, the Israeli military raided the small village of Beit Rima in the middle of the night with guns blazing. "There were 30 or 40 vehicles--tanks, armored personnel carriers, jeeps," said Mahmoud Suleiman, a member of the Palestinian security forces, who was among the first to be hit when an Israeli helicopter gunship rocketed his post, killing the two other men he was on duty with.

Israeli officials claimed the operation was necessary to arrest those involved in Ze'evi's assassination. But soldiers did little other than take revenge against the family members of those who were supposedly involved.

They demolished four homes belonging to relatives of the suspects. And they arrested 11 people, including the brother of the alleged gunman--even though none was on Israel's wanted list.

"They put guns on my head and body…and told me, 'We will take you to jail until we find your son,'" said Ifham Kara'an, the mother of the man who Israeli investigators believe killed Ze'evi. "I told them, 'Take me.' I will give them my soul, but not my son."

No reporters or ambulances were allowed into the village during the raid, causing at least one person to bleed to death. "We know that there are people inside needing our help," said Yunis al-Khatib, president of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, who was in an ambulance that was turned back. "What is happening there is a massacre."

In all, Israeli forces killed 10 people during Operation Dull Blade. "This incursion and the killings which have taken place are completely against international law and agreements," said UN mediator Terje Roed-Larsen.

But U.S. lawmakers didn't seem to care. Just days after the Beit Rima massacre, the U.S. Senate voted to give Israel $2.8 billion in foreign aid, making it once again the biggest recipient of U.S. aid.

This wasn't a surprise. The U.S. may find Israel's brutality embarrassing at this moment, but its commitment to Israel isn't a question. And this "special relationship" between the U.S. and Israel has the potential to spark rebellions around the Middle East.

That's because Arabs across the region sympathize with the Palestinian struggle to regain land taken by Israel in 1948. More than 700,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes that year as Israeli forces seized by force chunks of land not already handed to them by the UN.

Ever since, Israel has used its military might--courtesy of the U.S. government--to repress all resistance.

In the early 1990s, Israel decided it would be easier to rule over Palestinians by making a deal. Under the Oslo "peace" accords, parts of the Occupied Territories of Gaza and the West Bank were handed over to the PA to administer. But Israel kept overall control. The PA had little more power than Native Americans have on reservations.

PA leader Yasser Arafat, once widely popular as the best-known leader of the Palestinian struggle, is now despised, with his support draining away to Islamist groups such as Hamas that have proved willing to continue fighting Israel rather than compromise.

Palestinians' bitterness exploded in September 2000 into a new Intifada, or uprising. And in Lebanon's refugee camps, where some 300,000 Palestinians face appalling conditions, frustration is at a boiling point. "I'm ready to go anywhere, even hell, just to get out of Lebanon," said Khalil Anani, who lives with his wife and four children in one room over an alley.

But Israeli politicians have never seemed more prepared to abandon Oslo and destroy the PA. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was elected because he promised to "settle" the Palestinian question--ominous words from a war criminal who's best known for overseeing the massacre of more than 2,000 civilians at the end of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

But Israel can't simply step up the repression and violence without sparking even more resistance--resistance that could spill across the rest of the Arab world.

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Tough times to be a royal in Saudi Arabia

TIMES ARE tough for Saudi Arabia's ruling royal family. The Saudi royals are bitterly hated by much of their own population for their corruption and lavish lifestyles--and are themselves divided into numerous feuding factions.

Now to make matters worse, they're facing criticisms from their closest ally--the U.S. government, which has helped to keep them in power for decades.

Saudi Arabia was established in 1932 after a long military campaign to unify the Arabian peninsula. The U.S. government was involved from the beginning.

"There have been and still are two pillars of the relationship: oil and security," a senior U.S. official told the New York Times recently. "Oil runs the world, and the Saudis are the linchpin of oil production."

In return for access to Saudi oil, the U.S. has propped up one of the world's most repressive regimes, which imposes its own narrowly sectarian version of Islam--Wahhabism--on the country.

According to a Human Rights Watch report last year, "Freedom of expression and association were nonexistent rights, political parties and independent local media were not permitted, and even peaceful anti-government activities remained virtually unthinkable. Infringements on privacy, institutionalized gender discrimination, harsh restrictions on the exercise of religious freedom and the use of capital and corporal punishment were also major features of the kingdom's human rights record."

For years, Saudi Arabia's rulers relied on rapid growth to ensure stability. But over the past 20 years, the economy has increasingly run into trouble, in large part due to the corruption of the ruling family itself.

To maintain its power, the Saudi regime gave ultra-orthodox Islamic clerics control over education and social life in exchange for their political support. Saudi royals also made "lavish donations to Islamic…charities that the Treasury Department has listed as funding sources for terrorist groups," according to the Boston Globe.

But the strategy backfired. In the absence of other political outlets, opposition in Saudi Arabia has taken a religious form, with Islamist radicals denouncing the hypocrisy of Saudi rulers--especially the regime's close relationship with the U.S., which is hated for supporting Israel, imposing sanctions on Iraq and maintaining a military presence in Saudi Arabia itself.

The revelation that 15 of the 19 men who authorities claim were involved in the September 11 hijackings were Saudi citizens should not have come as a surprise. This, together with Saudi Arabia's reluctance to cooperate with the Bush administration's "war on terrorism," has led some U.S. politicians to voice sharp criticisms of the Saudi government.

But these critics conveniently ignore the fact that the U.S. government has for years relied on Saudi Arabia's cultivation of Islamic extremists to further its own goals.

In the 1980s, the U.S. worked hand in hand with Saudi Arabia--including a young Saudi businessman named Osama bin Laden--to fund, arm and train the Islamist resistance in Afghanistan.

In the 1990s, the U.S. backed Saudi Arabia's support for the Taliban in the hope that a hard-line regime in Afghanistan would restore stability so that U.S. companies could gain access to Central Asia's oil and gas.

Now the very forces the U.S. and the Saudi regimes helped to create pose a threat to them.

The Bush administration is aware that, with King Fahd close to death, the Saudi regime is highly unstable, so it has muted its criticisms. But the longer the U.S. war on Afghanistan continues, the more likely it is that the Saudi powder keg will blow.

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Pakistan's crisis grows deeper

THE U.S. war on Afghanistan is deepening the political crisis in Pakistan, a country already wracked by desperate poverty and run by a military dictatorship with nuclear weapons.

Since the bombing began, tens of thousands of protesters have defied government bans on demonstrations, even after authorities shot and killed several protesters. A U.S. military helicopter was even fired at last week as it landed at a base in Pakistan.

More than one-third of Pakistan's 120 million people live below the official poverty line. Some 45 percent don't have safe drinking water, and 40 percent have no access to basic health care. Nine million children under the age of five are malnourished.

Meanwhile, the enormously wealthy landlords who dominate the country pay practically no taxes at all.

Pakistan's military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, is worried about the possibility of a military coup led by the Taliban's supporters in Pakistan's military. That's why Musharraf--who had to be pressured by Washington into cutting Pakistan's close ties to the Taliban after September 11--appealed to the U.S. to halt the bombing by the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins in mid-November.

Washington's hawks wouldn't hear it. "We've been bending over backward too far to make sure Pakistan's feelings don't get hurt," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.).

This isn't the first time Washington has demanded that Pakistan do its bidding in South Asia. From the country's creation in 1947, the U.S. saw Pakistan as a counterweight to the ex-USSR's influence in India--and so was willing to arm Pakistan's military, which has ruled the country for about half of its existence.

Although formed as a nation on the basis that Muslims in South Asia should have their own country separate from predominantly Hindu India, this was mainly a way for wealthy Muslim landlords to mobilize support from poor Muslim peasants.

After Gen. Zia al-Huq took power in a 1977 coup, he used Islamism to broaden his political base by opening up religious schools, known as madrassas, and introducing harsh elements of sharia, or Islamic law.

By the early 1980s, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency and the CIA were using the madrassas as a training ground for Afghan and Pakistani mujahideen rebels to wage a "holy war" against the ex-USSR's invasion of Afghanistan.

As a result of all this, Islamist parties played an increasingly central role in both the Pakistani military and the ISI.

Soon after 1989, when Zia was assassinated and the Russians withdrew from Afghanistan, the U.S. stream of arms and aid to Pakistan was cut off. "Pakistan was the condom the Americans needed to enter Afghanistan," a retired general told British writer and activist Tariq Ali. "We've served our purpose, and they think we can just be flushed down the toilet."

Since 1989, Pakistan has tried to expand its influence in the region. The government sponsored a guerrilla war against India in Kashmir, the predominantly Muslim province divided militarily between Pakistan, India and China.

In 1994, the government of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto backed the rise of the Taliban in order to secure access to Central Asia markets--and the U.S. went along in the interests of "stability."

Bhutto herself was ousted by the military. But her successor, Nawaz Sharif, continued her policies, turning the Taliban-run Afghanistan into a client state, with the Pakistani military and ISI getting a cut of the heroin trade.

In 1998, Sharif's government responded to India's nuclear weapons tests by setting off nukes of its own. The two countries clashed militarily in Kashmir the following year.

Musharraf's coup in October 1999 left Pakistan more isolated, as Washington tilted toward India. But now the U.S. is promising new aid and help from the International Monetary Fund if Pakistan does Washington's dirty work once more. This won't mean anything but more misery and suffering for most Pakistanis.

"Pakistan's present government may get the promised peanuts and a new lease on life, as was the case with Zia, but the crushing debt burden will more or less remain intact, and the Kashmir imbroglio will keep hanging around its neck like a millstone," wrote journalist Shameem Akhtar in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn. "The prospects for the restoration of democracy in Pakistan would be ever more dimmed."

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