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World: Mideast, Kashmir Tests Unity Of Antiterror Coalition

  • Ron Synovitz

The international antiterrorism coalition assembled by Washington in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks on the United States is showing signs of strain amid conflicts in the Middle East and Kashmir. As RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz reports, it may also be suffering from growing impatience over the military campaign in Afghanistan.

Prague, 31 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- After more than three weeks of U.S.-led military strikes in Afghanistan, the unity of the international antiterrorism coalition is being tested.

Foreign ministers from the European Union are concerned that an escalation of violence between Israelis and Palestinians is hampering efforts to maintain Arab support for the coalition.

Saudi Arabia is coming under criticism from U.S. politicians and newspapers, who say the country isn't doing enough to support attacks on the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network.

The ongoing dispute between Pakistan and India over Kashmir also is causing friction.

And in Britain -- one of Washington's staunchest allies -- public support for the strikes in Afghanistan appears to be waning. A majority of Britons still support the military campaign, but opinion polls show that support now stands at about 62 percent -- a fall of 12 percent in the last two weeks.

Britain has taken a leading role in the diplomatic effort to maintain the coalition. Yesterday, launching a fresh effort to rally support in Britain and abroad, Prime Minister Tony Blair acknowledged some of the concerns: "I said a few days ago that now would be the testing time. People want results. They want them as fast as possible. They realize the formidable challenges posed by any action in Afghanistan. They worry about civilian casualties. They are anxious about the refugee crisis as winter approaches, and they wonder what comes after the conflict. All these concerns deserve to be answered."

But Blair warned that the world will face further acts of terror unless the coalition maintains its resolve to eliminate the Al-Qaeda network and its Taliban supporters: "We have a group of people in Afghanistan who are the sworn enemies of everything that the civilized world stands for -- who have killed once on a vast scale and will kill again unless stopped. They can't be negotiated with. They refuse to yield to justice. And they have one hope: that we are somehow decadent. That we lack the moral fiber or will or courage to take them on. That we might begin, but we won't finish. That we will start, then falter. That when the first setbacks occur, that we will lose our nerve. And they are wrong. Because we will not falter. We will not stop until our mission is complete."

Blair went on to describe the Taliban as a "cruel, dictatorial, and oppressive" regime that must be ousted. He said evidence gathered by intelligence services leaves no doubt that bin Laden organized the attacks of 11 September and that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are what he called "virtually a merged organization."

In a bid to boost Arab support for the campaign, Blair met today in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Both Blair and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw have traveled repeatedly to Muslim countries since 11 September to lobby for support. Straw is meeting with authorities in Moscow today.

Straw also met recently with other EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg to discuss the need to maintain unity. The EU foreign ministers are focusing attention on the crisis in the Middle East in the belief that stability in that region is a crucial factor in the wider campaign against terror.

But developments in the West Bank are raising further concerns about Arab support. Israeli tanks and troops remain in a series of Palestinian towns and villages in the West Bank, despite calls from Washington for a full withdrawal. Israeli forces today launched a fresh incursion.

Despite Western assurances that the antiterror campaign is not a fight against Islam, many ordinary Arabs are concerned about what they perceive as a pro-Israel bias on the part of the United States. That view has put domestic pressure on Arab leaders to limit their support for the U.S.-led strikes in Afghanistan.

The Syrian president said after his talks with Blair today that terrorism cannot be eliminated without an international solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Al-Assad also complained that, in his view, Israel is "proving day after day" that it is opposed to a Mideast peace settlement.

Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally in the Gulf region, has condemned the 11 September attacks. But Saudi officials so far have not acknowledged whether any of their citizens were involved. The FBI says as many as 15 of the 19 suspected hijackers are believed to be Saudis.

Saudi Arabia also has refused to allow air bases on its territory to be used by U.S. forces to launch attacks against Afghanistan.

Influential U.S. Senator John McCain has complained publicly that Saudi authorities are not doing enough to support the U.S.-led strikes. Interior ministers from six Arab states in the Persian Gulf -- including Saudi Arabia -- reacted strongly to that criticism yesterday.

Meeting in Bahrain, the ministers agreed to do more. They said they will trade more intelligence information, as well as take steps to eliminate funding sources for suspected terrorist groups. Other Arab states at those talks included Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates.

To the east of Afghanistan, concerns are being raised about increased tensions between Pakistan and India over the disputed region of Kashmir. India alleges that Pakistan created the Taliban regime and continues to supply and train thousands of Islamist guerrillas for terror attacks in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee recently raised the issue with visiting German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Vajpayee said: "We discussed the global campaign against terrorism and the need to pursue this campaign to its logical conclusion. We underlined the importance of political will for firm action against every organization in every country which funds, arms, trains or sponsors terrorism."

India's army commander in Kashmir, Lieutenant General R. K. Nanavatty, said today that his country and Pakistan are close to war over Kashmir -- a statement that New Delhi's Defense Ministry confirmed as "theoretically correct." Nanavatty warned that New Delhi could launch military action against both the Islamic guerrillas and Pakistan's armed forces if Islamabad continues to support the militants.

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf is due to meet in New York with U.S. President George W. Bush in November.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who visited both India and Pakistan in October, has urged the two countries to avoid a "flare-up" over Kashmir.

Powell predicted today that the antiterrorism coalition would stay together in the long term despite what he called a perceived "flat spot" in the military campaign against the Taliban.