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Hussein, big threat? Look around

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By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 11, 2003


Since Sept. 10, 2001, here's the number of Americans known to have been killed by Pakistanis: three.

Americans killed by Yemenis: three.

Americans killed by Saudis: more than 3,000.

Americans killed by Iraqis: zero.

Whatever grounds the United States has for invading Iraq, there's scant evidence Saddam Hussein's regime poses a grave or immediate threat to Americans. The real danger comes from al-Qaida and other Islamic extremists operating in Afghanistan and nations the United States considers its friends and allies.

In last week's speech to the U.N. Security Council, Secretary of State Colin Powell "simply did not make the case that Saddam Hussein is knowingly, actively cooperating with al-Qaida," says Ted Galen Carpenter, a foreign policy expert at the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank.

"We could condemn other countries to an even greater extent for their alleged collusion with al-Qaida -- Saudi Arabia, Yemen and definitely Pakistan -- if he's applying the same standards he's applying to Iraq. That was a very weak case: If this was a court of law, he couldn't have gotten an indictment, let alone a conviction."

In recent weeks, talk of war with Iraq has overshadowed several disturbing developments in the war on terrorism:

-- In Saudi Arabia, gunmen fired at a Briton last week as he drove to work at a British defense company. It was one of at least seven unsolved attacks in the past two years against Westerners working in the kingdom, including a bombing in which an American oil field technician was killed and another in which a Florida chiropractor was maimed.

-- In Yemen, a top politician was assassinated in December after he gave a speech condemning the country's "culture of violence." Two days later, three U.S. missionaries were killed by a man linked to al-Qaida.

-- In Afghanistan, militants distribute virulent anti-American propaganda, urge jihad against Americans and fire rockets almost daily at U.S. bases. More than a year after allied forces toppled the Taliban regime, American soldiers still confront "an extremely hostile environment," one soldier told the Washington Post.

-- And across the border in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, recent elections brought into power a conservative Islamic coalition that sympathizes with the Taliban and its repressive brand of Islam. Despite evidence to the contrary, the coalition's leader told the Associated Press that "we don't have any al-Qaida or Taliban here." And, he added ominously, U.S. forces shouldn't operate in the area: "We don't want any foreigners here."

Jamsheed Marker, Pakistan's former ambassador to the United States, agrees with many other experts that Powell failed to prove that Iraq is America's greatest threat.

"Iraq may be a danger in the future ... but al-Qaida presents a real and present danger because it's so widespread," Marker said. "Pakistan is one place where they are (found) and in a sense are being hunted."

Like Yemen and Saudi Arabia, Pakistan poses a diplomatic challenge to the Bush administration because it has been the scene of anti-American terrorism, yet is considered a valuable U.S. ally. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was one of the first world leaders to join the war on terror and has generally cooperated with the United States in trying to root out extremists in his country.

But the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan are fiercely independent regions over which Musharraf's government has little control. Most inhabitants are Pashtuns, from the same tribe as the Taliban, and are widely suspected of supporting and sheltering al-Qaida members, possibly Osama bin Laden himself.

Carpenter, of the Cato Institute, says the United States missed a "window of opportunity" early in the war in Afghanistan when it failed to crush al-Qaida cells in Pakistani border areas.

Through the first part of 2002, "I think we could have controlled the bulk of the organization had we moved military forces into Pakistan and not relied on Pakistan's military to take care of the problem," Carpenter said.

"But what should be the central theater of war is almost on hold now. Al-Qaida still operates out of significant sanctuaries inside Pakistan and until we confront the Pakistani government and take necessary actions, we're going have a lot of trouble in terms of the occupation of Afghanistan, much less any offensive operations in the war on terrorism."

It could be difficult to get Pakistan to cooperate any more than it already has. Musharraf's popularity is eroding at a time when Islamic extremism is growing among Pakistan's 147-million people. Carpenter says the best bet might be for Musharraf to "look the other way" as U.S. forces quietly go into the tribal areas and clean out any remaining al-Qaida cells.

But "it has to remain quiet; you clearly can't overdo it," warns Marker, the former ambassador. He notes that even moderate Pakistanis are turning against Musharraf and the United States, angry that Pakistanis in America must register with the U.S. government even though their country was on the front lines of the war on terror.

"There are many people who still support (al-Qaida), largely because of anti-American sentiment," Marker said. "I've never known it to be so high."

-- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@stpimes.com.

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