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Thursday, October 18, 2001

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Unease among allies over continued bombing

By Hasan Suroor

LONDON, OCT. 17. Amid growing calls from aid agencies for a halt to air strikes in Afghanistan, particularly after the accidental attack on a Red Cross warehouse, the British Foreign Secretary, Mr. Jack Straw, today admitted that there was ``unease'' over continued bombing and regretted civilian casualties but warned that the action could last ``months, not days or weeks.''

His remarks, in which he nevertheless justified the offensive, came after he faced widespread criticism in the House of Commons where one Labour MP, Mr George Galloway, denounced the war as the ``equivalent of Mike Tyson in a ring with a five-year- old child.''

Even as Mr Straw insisted that the strikes were meant to be ``targeted'', there was concern that civilian buildings were coming increasingly under attack even when they were identifiable as non-military targets - as in the case of the Red Cross warehouse which, according to reports, prominently displayed its universally recognised symbol.

Mr Straw, who was in Luxembourg today for a E.U. Foreign Ministers' conference before flying to Turkey for talks, sought to play down the anti-war protests saying that Turkey's support for the action was a ``good indication'' of its acceptance across the Muslim world. But MPs voiced concern that far from achieving anything, the bombing was inflicting misery on innocent people. The criticism reflected the increasing mood of frustration, and anxiety that Americans cannot afford to let the war drag on without causing serious friction in the coalition, with the Muslim world, whose support is crucial, emerging as its Achilles heel.

The sharp reactions from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran dominated the headlines, even as commentators noted a revival of dissenting voices in Europe where the Belgian Foreign Minister, Mr. Louis Michel, warned that there were ``limits to solidarity'' and the Greens in Germany called for a pause in the bombing. Mr. Michel's strong comment in which he attacked the British Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair, for his ``overly aggressive'' rhetoric and said Europe would not be led ``blindfold'' into supporting any action was seen as particularly significant considering that Belgium holds the current presidency of the E.U.

``The comments are a signal that Britain might not be able to count on sustained E.U. backing if the going gets rough,'' The Daily Telegraph said on Tuesday. The Guardian spoke of a ``crisis'' in the U.S.'s relations with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, two of its ``core'' allies in the current campaign. It said Washington had been taken by ``surprise'' by Saudi Arabia's ``latest and most public'' display of anger over the continued bombing of Afghanistan.

Last week, Riyadh refused to receive Mr. Blair citing the anti- Western public mood as the reason and on Monday it pointedly told Washington that it was ``not at all happy with the situation''.

A U.S.-based expert on Arab politics has been quoted as saying that any radical shift in Saudi policy could jeopardise the entire U.S. strategy. ``The whole war as currently conceived would have to be reconsidered, because Pakistan won't hold if Saudi support starts collapsing,'' according to Mr. David Wurmser, director of West Asia studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

One commentator said even if Saudi Arabia's move was intended to mollify domestic opinion, it indicated how its relationship with its traditional mentor and protector had come under strain since the Sept. 11 outrage and the military strikes against Afghanistan.

The Pakistan Government's unease over the prospects of a long- drawn-out war in its neighbourhood, publicly articulated by its officials and the President, Gen. Parvez Musharraf, has added to Washington's ``in-tray of anxieties'' as one newspaper put it, highlighting the increasing restlessness among U.S. coalition partners.

The U.S. Secretary of State, Gen. Colin Powell's visit to Pakistan was widely described here as a desperate attempt to shore up Islamabad's ``reluctant'' support to the U.S. military action in Afghanistan, and there were fears that reports of the latest civilian casualties would add to the pressure on Washington to cut short the campaign.

Even The Times, a consistent pro-war campaigner, expressed its misgivings about protracted bombing and warned that in the absence of ``clarity of political objectives... and the military means... to match it'', the current campaign could ``impair'' the broader aim of defeating terrorism.

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