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By Robert Fisk
The Independent (London)

October 5, 2001, Friday


THE AMERICANS are finding it a hard sell in the Middle East, and the British Government's document "proving" Osama bin Laden's responsibility for the 11 September atrocities is unlikely to rally the Arab world to the West's "war on terrorism". Only nine of the 70 points in the document relate to the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, and these often rely on conjecture rather than evidence. Claiming that "an operation on the scale of the 11 September attacks would have been approved by Osama bin Laden himself" (point 63) is not going to cut much ice in Saudi Arabia or other Gulf states.


In Riyadh, the US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, admitted the Saudis were worried about the "secondary effects" of a "war on terror" - shorthand for the fear of the House of Saud that their regime may be overthrown if America bombs Afghanistan and kills Mr bin Laden. Mr Rumsfeld's remarks show just how frightened the Saudis are of associating themselves with President Bush's war. "We had a very substantive and interesting and thoughtful discussion about the nature of the problem and the complexities of the problem, and the importance of dealing with it in a way that recognises secondary effects that could occur," he said after his talks with King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah. Which doesn't sound like wholehearted support for the US. Events are now moving at such speed that for many Arab nations, the details, or lack of details, of Mr bin Laden's involvement in the 11 September hijackings may appear almost irrelevant. The destruction of a charter flight from Tel Aviv and the loss of all its passengers over the Black Sea may exacerbate the conflict in the Middle East. Most Arab leaders regard Mr bin Laden as a threat to their own stability, let alone America's, and would be happy to accept our "evidence" of his guilt. But they are unlikely to convince their people of this.


Newspapers in the Gulf and in Egypt, Mr Rumsfeld's next destination, are almost uniformly anti-American, repeatedly demanding an end to the "double standards" of the US, its unconditional support for Israel and its refusal to understand the Arab struggle against "Israeli terrorism". Editorial writers are likely to be less than enthusiastic about a document which uses evidence of Mr bin Laden's involvement in earlier bombings to imply his guilt for the crimes against humanity on 11 September.


Arabs studying the British document may be amused to learn that Mr bin Laden runs a holding company called Wadi al Aqiq, which translates as "Valley of the Brown Gem", and Al Themar Al Mubaraka, "The Blessed Fruit", and intrigued by the information that an American warship was attacked by apparent suicide bombers several months before the bombing of the USS Cole in Aden harbour. They will be less impressed by the statement that "on 3 and 4 October, operatives of al-Qa'ida participated in the attack on US military personnel serving in Somalia as part of the operation "Restore Hope". The Americans were in fact attacking the presumed base of a Somali warlord when their helicopters were shot down by gunmen, including some of Mr bin Laden's men.


But as usual in the Arab world, what the people think and what the kings and presidents believe are not necessarily the same thing. Any Gulf emir reading Mr bin Laden's words about "cleansing" the Gulf of Americans will realise that the kings and sultans who invited the Americans are among those Mr bin Laden wants "cleansed". The British Government may feel that Mr bin Laden's remark about "Satan's US troops and the devil's supporters allying with them" refers "unquestionably" to the United Kingdom, but the Saudi royal family knows that the "devil's supporters" undoubtedly alludes to them.


America has meanwhile been expressing its anger at the only free Arab television station, the al-Jazeera channel transmitting from Qatar. The State Department, which only a year ago was praising the station as a bastion of free speech in the Middle East, has now asked the Qatari government to "rein in" al-Jazeera because it is allegedly inciting anti- American sentiments. Al-Jazeera, which interviewed the US Secretary of State Colin Powell only a week ago, just happens to be the only Arab station with correspondents in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.


But muzzling Qatari television is not going to change the bleak prospects of Arab co-operation in Mr Bush's war. With the Gulf largely unhelpful and Egypt anxious to avoid its own social explosion, the Americans appear to be looking north, to the former Soviet Muslim republics, for real military assistance in an Afghan war.