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Will Arab leaders rein in militants?

Posted: Thursday, June 05, 2003

SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt Arab leaders have been reluctant to take on Islamic militants who attack Israel, considered heroes by many of their people. The question now is whether they will follow through on new promises to rein in violent radicals in the name of peace.

One indication they might take a tougher stand is a backlash against militant violence in Arab nations most recently deadly suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia and Morocco.

In their statement after a summit with President Bush, Arab leaders dropped their usual distinction between terrorists and ''legitimate resistance to Israeli occupation,'' which has been the rationale in the past for not touching radical groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories.

However, there was a condition in the Arab leaders' commitment: that the United States press Israel to withdraw troops and settlers from Palestinian land and fulfill its promises under the U.S.-backed road map plan for creating a Palestinian state by 2005.

Addressing criticism that Saudi Arabia had not gone after the sources of militancy and cracked down on funding and recruitment, a Saudi official said after the summit that the danger was not only from those ''carrying the gun and the explosives'' but also ''those who create the conditions and create the climate for violence.''

Another hitch to halting militant violence is that the region's nations that most directly support anti-Israeli groups, Syria and Iran, were not present at Tuesday's summit in the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheik.

The road map requires Arab states ''to cut off public and private funding and all other forms of support for groups supporting and engaging in violence and terror.''

Summit host President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, speaking for the Arab side, accepted the challenge and made an unequivocal promise that U.S. allies in the region would use the force of law to combat terrorism.

''We will use all the power of the law to prevent support reaching illegal organizations, including terrorist groups,'' he said, speaking alongside Bush and other leaders at a closing ceremony on the shore of the Red Sea.

Fawaz Gerges, professor of Mideast studies at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, argued that Arab criticism of militant tactics, including suicide attacks associated with Palestinian groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, has been growing since Sept. 11. He said many Arabs feel their faith, Islam, has been damaged by its association with violence in the minds of the West.

''On the question of terrorism I think there's an emerging consensus in the Arab world,'' he said in a telephone interview. ''Even in Palestine, I think Hamas and Islamic Jihad are on the defensive.''

Arabs and Muslims have felt the consequences of militancy in the name of religion. Some 100,000 Algerians died during 10 years of extremist Islamic violence in their country. Hundreds of Egyptians died during the 1990s during an uprising by radicals bent on replacing the government with strict Islamic rule.

Egypt cracked down hard on the militants. The last major attack in Egypt was in 1997, when militants killed 58 foreign tourists and four Egyptians at an ancient temple in the southern town of Luxor. Occasional roundups continue and human rights groups say 12,000 to 15,000 Islamic activists are being held, many under emergency laws that don't require trials. Since Sept. 11, the relatively moderate Muslim Brotherhood has been a target of Egyptian authorities.

Under pressure from the United States, Syria, whose leader was not invited to the Sharm el-Sheik summit, recently closed offices of Palestinian militant groups in its capital.

Saudi Arabia has in particular been under pressure to do more. After the terror attacks on New York and Washington, the kingdom established a commission to oversee charities and barred cash transfers between banks to cut off funding to militants.

However, Saudi rulers were reluctant to admit that most of the Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudi and were seen in the United States and in Israel as doing little to rein in clerics who supported Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida as well as groups that attacked Israel.

After suicide bombers hit residential compounds in Riyadh last month, killing Saudis as well as Americans, Saudi officials moved against militant cells. In a marked departure from the past, they also declared war on extremist rhetoric emanating from mosques and on Islamic Web sites believed to inspire militants.

Israel has accused some Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, of giving financial aid to families of Palestinian suicide bombers.

In Sharm el-Sheik on Tuesday, the Saudi official said his kingdom had reported to the United States on charities, and will ensure that ''payments given to the Palestinians ... will be only be through the National Authority of Palestinians. As to money given out for humanitarian reasons, here the law will be used to make sure that these funds will go to the proper place.''

In April, Saudis donated more than $100 million to support the Palestinians during a telethon on state-run Saudi television. Though Saudi officials promised the money would not go to the families of suicide attackers, many donors vented their fury at Israel and praised bombers.

Eric Davis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at Rutgers University, said Saudi Arabia was sufficiently shaken by the Riyadh suicide bombings to be taken seriously when it speaks out against terrorism now.

Murhaf Jouejati, an analyst at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, noted that the Arab leaders at Sharm el-Sheik did not try to make distinctions between terrorism and resistance groups.

''The Arabs here have gone further than before,'' he said. But the question remained: ''Has this been said (only) in order to please the United States?''



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