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Tuesday, 11 December, 2001, 17:49 GMT
Tough questions over allies' next move
Cairo
Rumours are rife in the markets of Cairo
Frank Gardner

In the coffee shops of Cairo, the rumours are rife. "America and the West are bent on suppressing the Muslim world," say Egyptians.

"Mark my words," says a man with a face as old as time itself. "Your people will attack Iraq, but the Arabs will not allow it."


If the right-wing hawks in Washington have their way, Iraq will top the target list

He and his friends nod sagely, secure in their belief that they're wise to the plottings and machinations of distant governments in the West.

Egyptians love to gossip, but this is no idle banter. There is a very real fear, here in the Middle East, that once America has finished its business in Afghanistan, it will mount an assault on Iraq.

The Arab League and several Arab governments have given a clear warning to the West: "Attack any Arab country, and you'll lose our support for the war on terrorism. The international coalition will unravel."

For the moment, the threat of an attack on Iraq appears to have receded. The US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, has said no decision had been taken on what the next phase of the campaign might be.

But it's fair to assume that plans for possible military action in several countries are being drawn up.

Top of the list

If the right-wing hawks in Washington have their way, Iraq will top the target list. It is strongly suspected of rebuilding its weapons of mass destruction, and is also refusing to let in UN weapons inspectors.

Couple that with the West's dislike for Saddam Hussein, and some circumstantial evidence linking Iraq to al-Qaeda, and it's easy to see why Iraqis are nervous.

In the corridors of a luxury hotel in the Gulf, I recently cornered Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri. A quiet and pleasant man who plays a tough game of tennis, he flinched when I asked him if his government feared an attack.

Saddam Hussein
Saddam's army is much stronger than the Taleban
Iraq, he said, had done nothing wrong. It was all a Western plot to subjugate his country.

But on the streets of Baghdad, people are worried. The official media is preparing the population for another bombardment, along with all the usual rhetoric about resistance and America's ultimate defeat.

There are stories of fuel being stockpiled for a coming crisis, and security forces are reported to have redeployed around the country.

But if Washington does decide, against the advice of its European allies, to attack Iraq, then it's expected to be more than a few pin-prick bombing raids.

The brief US-British air campaign of three years ago is widely acknowledged to have achieved nothing. So if President Bush makes up his mind that Saddam Hussein is a terror target, he's likely to order the use of massive force to unseat him.

Difficult campaign

There are several problems with this. Iraq is an Arab country and most Arabs think it has suffered enough.

And they're already hostile to America because of its support for Israel. A massive US attack on Iraq could just be enough to force even moderate Arab states to renounce their ties with America.

And then there's the problem of actually winning the war. Iraq's armed forces are not the Taleban. They're vast, well-armed and mostly loyal to Saddam. There's no Northern Alliance, conveniently waiting to go in and do the job on the ground.

Yemen villages
Yemen can be a wild and lawless place
The Kurds would be unwilling to march on Baghdad and the Iraqi opposition is a fragmented bunch of exiles with no military following. So, America would almost certainly have to commit troops on the ground, with all the casualties that would entail.

Even if the war was won and Saddam Hussein was killed or captured, there follows the problem of holding the country together afterwards.

Without a strong man in charge, Iraq could well split into three - the Kurds in the north, the Sunnis in the middle, and the Shias in the south. So taking all of this into account, it's not surprising that America seems to be postponing any awkward decisions on what to do about Saddam Hussein.

The wilds of Yemen

There are, however, other more attainable targets in the region. And they wouldn't necessarily mean picking a fight with the government concerned.

Yemen and Sudan have both played host at some time to supporters of Osama Bin Laden, but both countries are now bending over backwards to help Washington track down the remnants of his terror network.

In Sudan, where Osama Bin Laden made his base during the early 1990s, US investigators have been working with the Sudanese for the last year. America's cruise missile attack on the outskirts of Khartoum three years ago seems to have been forgiven.

USS Cole
Bin Laden is the prime suspect for the US warship attack in Yemen
In Yemen, the FBI has been on the ground for even longer. Three years ago I came across one of their people in the capital Sana'a. At the time, the UK Government was intent on investigating how the Yemenis had bungled the rescue of 16 tourists kidnapped by militants.

But Washington just quietly sent its detectives into the country and then built up a rapport with the authorities. "We're here to trace any links with Bin Laden," said my FBI man, squinting in the mountain sunlight from behind his reflecting sunglasses.

Since then, the FBI's had its work cut out in Yemen. It's a wild, often lawless place where there are three times as many guns as people.

Just this week, the army has been besieging a remote village where tribesmen were keeping a kidnapped German businessman.

There's no doubt that Bin Laden still has violent Islamist followers in Yemen. In fact he's the prime suspect behind last year's suicide bomb attack that blew a hole in a US warship in Aden, killing 17 sailors.

Yemen is exactly the sort of place where highly-trained Western troops could soon be working in concert with local forces to tackle terror.

Of course, there can always be an element of piqued national pride in such operations. But in the global effort to extinguish terror, the choices have been made starkly simple.

Washington expects countries like Sudan, Yemen and Somalia to work with them or else, as the Americans say, to face the consequences.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
report by Frank Gardner
"If the right-wing hawks in Washington have their way, Iraq will top the target list."
See also:

20 Oct 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
Wind of change in Yemen
29 Nov 01 | Middle East
German businessman snatched in Yemen
29 Nov 01 | Middle East
Iraq seeks to deflect US pressure
23 Sep 01 | Africa
Bin Laden's Sudan links remain
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