Protests may force US to turn to ground troops

War against terrorism: The Alliance
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After three days of bombing Afghan targets, the US is becoming increasingly worried about holding together the Arab and Islamic elements of its uneasy coalition against Osama bin Laden and his followers.

The official message is upbeat, with Bush administration aides assuring that whatever the deafening public silences on the part of some friendly Arab governments about the strikes, the coalition was intact and "in good shape". But concern about the protests welling up on the streets in Pakistan and Indonesia is one factor pointing to an early end to the initial "softening up" bombing campaign, and a shift to more precise, less visible ground operations with a lower level of air support.

Diplomats say that this also makes less likely, in the short term at least, a substantial US attack on Iraq, despite the frequently voiced allegation that Baghdad's intelligence services may have been linked to the attacks. There is also the unconcealed desire of conservative hawks, led in the Bush administration by Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defence, to use this crisis as an opportunity to get rid of Saddam Hussein once and for all.

Arab and Islamic foreign ministers at a meeting today of the 56-member Organisation of the Islamic Conference will urge the US not to expand the strikes to include Arab states.

The Iraqi Foreign Minister, Naji Sabri, told reporters in Qatar yesterday: "We think that the United States may use this opportunity to take vengeance against the Iraqi people because Iraq is not ready to surrender its territory to become a colony for the United States, Britain and Israel."

Two other factors have also increased suspicions that some kind of action against Iraq was in the pipeline; the frequent clashes between Iraqi air defences and US and British aircraft patrolling the no-fly zones in the north and south of the country, and Sunday night's warning to the Security Council by John Negroponte, Washington's ambassador to the United Nations, that the US might need to take "further actions with respect to other organisations and other states". But the White House insisted that Mr Negroponte was merely repeating what President George Bush had been stressing since the outset of the crisis.

The British government sent a similar letter to the Security Council, justifying the military action as self-defence.

British forces were operational "against targets we know to be involved in the operation of terror against the United States, the United Kingdom and other countries around the world, as part of a wider international effort," said the letter written by Stewart Eldon, the UK charge d'affaires to the UN.

There is increasing unease within British government circles at the prospect of the US targeting Iraq. Senior Whitehall officials fear that the hawks in the US may be winning their argument for broadening the conflict and Britain is likely to get dragged along.

Tony Blair has been strongly advised by the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence not to become involved in extending the conflict. Doing so, they hold, will break the fragile so-called global coalition, with not only Muslim nations, but Russia and China withdrawing.

For now, the cautious views of the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, are prevailing. The focus should be on Mr bin Laden and his followers and protectors in Afghanistan, he says. His argument is that any widening of the retaliation to Iraq, without cast-iron evidence of its involvement, would strengthen the impression of an onslaught against Islam. That is an impression that Mr Bush has been bending over backwards to dispel, insisting that America's quarrel is exclusively with the terrorists and their sponsors, not Islam in general.

Instead, the White House yesterday pointed to the declared support for the anti-terrorist onslaught from Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian President, and the first public acknowledgement from the Saudi authorities of clear evidence that Mr bin Laden was behind the 11 September attacks. The administration is also heartened by news that Tajikistan has joined Uzbekistan in making its airspace available, and opening its bases for humanitarian operations by US forces.

Ari Fleischer, Mr Bush's spokesman, started his daily briefing by listing countries which were solidly behind the US, while Washington is not concealing its praise of Yasser Arafat – not the most popular figure in Washington during the early stages of the Bush administration – after his forces suppressed a demonstration in Gaza by pro-bin Laden Palestinians, killing three of them in the process.

Further explicit support was expected from Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, due at the White House in the afternoon to underscore Germany's readiness to provide military help in the campaign.

But for all the public optimism, diplomatic jitters in Washington remain. Later this week, General Powell will travel to Pakistan to reassure its leader, General Pervez Musharraf, who, with great discomfort, has cast in his lot with the US. But mindful of widespread popular sympathy with Mr bin Laden, he has urged the US to halt the bombing campaign within days.

The Secretary of State's visit could also coincide with mass demonstrations threatened by the country's largest Islamic party, which has warned of "millions" taking to the streets if the United States does not halt its "aggression" against the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban in Afghanistan.