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U.S. Facing 'Total Meltdown' in Mideast: Key Muslim allies Saudi Arabia and Pakistan break ranks over bombing

g and compass

Guardian Unlimited

Muslim allies break ranks with US

Key Muslim allies Saudi Arabia and Pakistan break ranks with US over bombing

Matthew Engel in Washington Matthew Engel in Washington
Tuesday October 16, 2001
The Guardian

Relations between the US and two of its core allies in the war against terrorism, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, approached crisis point yesterday after the Saudi interior minister, Prince Naif, attacked the assault on Afghanistan while Pakistan pressed Washington to ensure that its bombing campaign would be short-lived.

In the latest and most public of a series of disagreements between the countries that have evidently taken the US by surprise in the five weeks since the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, Prince Naif told the official Saudi Press Agency that the kingdom wanted the US to flush out the terrorists without bombing. "This is killing innocent people. The situation does not please us at all."

Officially, the state department in Washington remains "very satisfied" with the Saudi approach to the crisis, but this masks increasing alarm not merely about the governmental response but about potential insurrection that could endanger the whole Saudi regime.

Prince Naif's comments add to the diplomatic pressure being felt by the US in its attempts to maintain support in the region for its policies.

Secretary of state, Colin Powell, who holds talks with General Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad today, took further steps yesterday to bolster Pakistan's support for the war, promising military-to-military contacts.

The sanctions imposed after Pakistan's nuclear test in 1998 still prevent the US selling the country any weaponry or equipment, but by moving towards direct military relations Mr Powell was clearly holding out the prospect of future rewards if the Musharraf regime continued to play ball.

But with strikes ordered across the country by Islamist groups in protest at Mr Powell's visit, Mr Musharraf is aware that his support for the US action can go only so far. "The prolongation of the campaign will be a source of concern to us," the Pakistani foreign ministry said last night.

Further underlining the tension that now racks the region, Indian troops broke a 10-month ceasefire with Pakistan last night when they fired shells into disputed territory in Kashmir, killing a woman and wounding 25.

A clearly worried President George Bush fired off a salvo to the two nuclear powers when he said: "I think it is very important that India and Pakistan stand down during our activities in Afghanistan and, for that matter, forever."

And in the most extreme language to emerge from Tehran since September 11, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, said that the US air strikes on the Taliban were "dragging the world into a war".

At the top of Washington's in-tray of anxieties relating to its war against terrorism coalition partners, analysts now believe that Saudi Arabia - where few western journalists are allowed - may be turning into the gravest challenge.

"It's unbelievable how the feeling here has changed from sympathy to anger in such a short time," according to a Riyadh-based westerner quoted by Reuters yesterday. Another resident compared the mood there to that of Iran in the late 70s, before the overthrow of the Shah.

Since September 11, Riyadh has refused to allow attacks on Afghanistan from its bases; Prince Abdullah, the country's crown prince and day-to-day ruler, has avoided meeting President Bush; Muslim clerics within the once-monolithic country have issued fatwas against the Americans; and, beneath the bland assurances of amity, there has been growing US frustration about the extent of Saudi cooperation with this investigation too.

American feeling was expressed in a powerful editorial in Sunday's New York Times, which described Saudi behaviour as "malignant" and said the "deeply cynical" bargain between the countries, which for decades had offered American protection for the regime in return for an uninterrupted flow of oil, was now "untenable".

David Wurmser, director of Middle East studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said yesterday: "The US's entire foreign policy structure in the region has been anchored in the strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia. If everything we're hearing is true, then we're facing a total meltdown. The whole war as currently conceived would have to be reconsidered, because Pakistan won't hold if Saudi support starts collapsing.

"You can't really separate Bin Laden from the Saudi establishment," Mr Wurmser said. "There are conflicting forces there, and part of the establishment has been working with the Bin Laden faction to embarrass the other half."

However, the state department spokesman, Philip Reeker, yesterday repeated the "very satisfied" mantra that his colleagues have been using for some time. He noted that Prince Naif had said the situation did not please the Saudis.

"I think that quite reflects the attitudes we've been expressing for five weeks now. This situation, clearly, doesn't please us. We would certainly rather be able to focus on other things in our foreign and defence policy."

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