Of all countries on the US list of “states sponsoring terrorism” only one failed to condemn the devastating attack on New York and Washington D.C.: Iraq. Not only did it not express regret over the massive loss of human lives, but an Iraqi official statement declared on the day after the attack that the Americans simply “asked for it,”having been responsible for the loss of so many Iraqi and Palestinian lives. The Iraqi statement was referring to the US-led war on Iraq in 1991, and the decade-old UN embargo imposed on Baghdad, as well as the American support for Israel in its war on the Palestinians.
Though Palestinian President Yasser Arafat was one of the first leaders to unequivocally condemn the attack, it did not prevent dozens of Palestinians from celebrating in the streets, with a sense of poetic justice. They just couldn’t hide their satisfaction that the Americans, at last, now got a taste of their own medicine for supporting Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestinian territories. The rest of the Middle East remained calm, with the leaders of Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, among others, joining the rest of the world in denouncing the barbaric assault on innocent civilians. But with preliminary investigations indicating that the perpetrators of the coordinated attacks may be linked to the Middle East, the countries of the region now feel more uneasy, bracing for America’s response.
If it turns out that the primary suspect, Saudi dissident Osama Ben Laden is indeed responsible for the disaster, then most countries in the region will feel relieved. For Ben Laden, who is now in hiding in Afghanistan, is considered a threat in Saudi Arabia and most of the Middle East. And if American retaliation against him is limited to punishing him and his supporters in Afghanistan, then this would be the best-case scenario for these countries. However, if it turns out that the organisers of the assault on America are linked to radical Islamic groups or to Iraq, it will be a completely different story. The anger in Washington is so high and the demand for revenge so intense that almost everybody in the region is running for cover.
Either way, and from what US officials have already said, it is doubtful that the United States will be satisfied with the arrest or liquidation of Ben Laden, who lives in Kabul, or the bombing of the headquarters of any radical groups. If there is a Palestinian connection, which appears less and less possible, it is hard to imagine that the US will be able to do more than what Israel is doing already. If the attacks on America prove to be sponsored by a state, the reaction would be much more difficult. US Secretary of State Colin Powell made it clear that this is not going to be a one-time retaliation against whoever is responsible. This is going to be a “sustained” US-led campaign against all countries harbouring or supporting terrorism.
With Iraq being on top of the list, diplomats in the region expect Washington to put more pressure on neighbouring countries, including Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Turkey and Iran, to further isolate Iraq politically and stem Iraqi smuggling of oil through their territories. The Iraqi regime, which has been under embargo since its invasion of Kuwait in 1990, is believed to be making $2 billion in profits a year from oil smuggling through Turkey, Iran and the United Arab Emirates. Furthermore, it is suspected by Western intelligence agencies that Saddam Hussein, over the last decade, has built contacts and cooperation with regional or international terrorist groups hostile to the United States. With illegal oil revenues from oil smuggling in violation of UN sanctions, Saddam has a lot of cash to spend. Being the country with the second largest oil reserves in the region after Saudi Arabia, Iraq has also used his oil wealth to develop relations with its neighbours and break its political isolation in the region. In the last several months, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Russia and other countries have signed trade deals with Iraq in return for opposing US and British attempts to tighten UN sanctions against Baghdad.
Last summer, Washington and London failed to pass a resolution at the UN Security Council that would ease economic sanctions on Iraq for humanitarian reasons and tighten the military embargo because of opposition from neighbouring states and a threat by Russia to veto the resolution. This has dealt a blow to the US prestige in the region.
With Washington unable to control the escalation of the violence between Israel and the Palestinians, the US, which is the main sponsor of the peace process, has lost even more influence as an effective player in the Middle East. Other attempts to mediate an Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire by the European Union, in addition to an initiative by Germany’s foreign minister, were undermined by Israel’s rejection of any halt to its campaign against the Palestinians before a complete acceptance of Israeli conditions, including a period of calm preceding any implementation of any peace plan. These included proposals made by the independent “Mitchell Commission” and an understanding reached by the CIA chief George Tenet. Israel also rejected Arafat’s call for independent observers to oversee a ceasefire between the two sides, although a meeting of G-7 countries endorsed the proposal and several mediations by the EU and Washington.
In view of the attack against key targets in New York and Washington, the US administration is expected to increase its pressure on both Israel and the Palestinians to accept a ceasefire plan. This is crucial for Washington to secure the cooperation of its key Arab allies in the region, including Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf Cooperation Council states (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Oman, Bahrain and Qatar) to help it regain its role and influence by stopping Iraq from becoming a regional power. Baghdad has become, in the last few years, the main trading partner and aid donor to countries like Jordan, Syria and Lebanon through oil grants, in addition to smuggling oil to Turkey and Iran at prices well below the market rates. It has also signed free trade agreements with many countries in the region, promising to become a key partner to any state that challenges American policies. Last June, Iraq started pumping oil through a pipeline reaching Syria at a rate of 250,000 barrels per day, in violation of UN sanctions. This is widely considered as an Iraqi grant to Syria in return for its support of Baghdad against American policies. Iraq also signed a $1 billion free trade agreement with Egypt.
If Washington is to have any success in weakening countries like Iraq and Syria, which have traditionally supported anti-American radical groups in the region, it will have to first put an end to the Palestinian-Israeli confrontation before it starts to gain the ground it lost to Iraq and the radical forces in the Middle East. The suffering of the Palestinian people has drawn the sympathy of people in all Arab states and increased pressure on their governments to oppose American policies that are perceived in support of Israel. This means that for Washington to regain its role in the region, it would have to exercise equal pressure on Israel and the Palestinians to end the bloodshed, and to generally get more involvement in the problems of the region.
The lesson from the attacks on New York and Washington is: “If you don’t go to the crisis, the crisis will come to you.”