Saturday, July 29, 2006

A Reckless Lack of US Middle East Urgency
Published: July 26 2006 03:00
Financial Times

Few ceasefires in the Middle East amount to more than an opportunity for the combatants to reload. Yet never was one more needed than in Lebanon today. That is not just because of the suffering inflicted on civilians on both sides of the border between Israel and Lebanon. It is because the conflict is on the point of spreading like fire across a region enraged by Israel's wanton destruction of an Arab country, with the full support of a US administration that purports to be Lebanon's ally.

To be sure, Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, started her tour of the region in Beirut, giving that warred-over capital a brief respite. But no sooner had she moved to Jerusalem than Israel resumed massive air strikes on Beirut's teeming southern suburbs, the heartland of Hizbollah, the heavily armed Shia Islamist group.

The message she brought to both parties was that there would be no return to the status quo ante. Hizbollah had to pull back from the border, disarm and hand back the two Israeli soldiers it seized two weeks ago, precipitating the crisis.

The chances of this happening are virtually nil, as Israel should know. Hizbollah was spawned by the Israeli invasion of 1982, and its shrewd but implacable guerrilla warfare forced Israel finally to abandon its occupation in 2000. Ignoring the hard reality of the region, Washington appears to believe diplomacy is about achieving Israel's unrealisable war aims by other means.

The Bush administration is taking a huge gamble. Ms Rice blithely asserts that we are witnessing "the birth pangs of a new Middle East" - an unfortunate metaphor set against the background noise of the death-rattle of a recently resurgent, pro-western Lebanon.

But the point is that fighting could now easily spread, and not just by sucking in Hizbollah's patrons in Syria and Iran. Israel's assault on Shia Lebanon has inflamed the Shia majority in Iraq - the community preventing the total meltdown of the US occupation. Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army, modelled on Hizbollah, which fought alongside it in the 2004 siege of Najaf, is itching to launch a new uprising. Even Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of the Shia who has held the Iraqi ring, is reportedly on the verge of withdrawing his tacit but vital support for the American project.

No wonder Nouri al-Maliki, the beleaguered Iraqi premier who yesterday held talks with President Bush, is so insistent on a ceasefire in Lebanon. So it is with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, another US ally who, despite his fear of Iran-led radicalism, warned yesterday "there will be no other option but war" unless Israel halts attacks on the Lebanese and Palestinians. The US and its friends need to engage with all parties in the region. That includes Syria and Iran. That was partly how Washington stopped the last bout of fighting approaching this scale in 1996. Its lack of urgency now is reckless.


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