Arabs ponder thinking behind US 'terror' list: Middle East Muslims are wary in the wake of the New York bombing, writes Robert Fisk in Beirut

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The Independent Online
WHAT is going on in the United States? In less than a week, an Arab is accused of bombing the World Trade Center, Iran is singled out by the State Department as 'the world's leading state supporter of terrorism', and Congress forbids US diplomats to talk to members of the anti-Israeli Hamas resistance. 'Israeli intelligence sources' are quoted in reports linking Iran, the Palestinians and Egyptian fundamentalists in a plot against the West. And suddenly, no one talks about Saddam Hussein any more.

Middle East Muslims were the first to understand the dangers behind these developments. Iran has accused the US of trying to distract the world's attention from the massacre of Bosnian Muslims and the plight of the Palestinian deportees in southern Lebanon. In Lebanon, journalistic wrath knew no bounds.

'The Arab is the killer; his crime is defined later,' the Beirut daily as-Safir thundered at the weekend. 'Every Arab is a terrorist until he proves otherwise . . . No matter whether his nationality is Egyptian, or Palestinian or Algerian, he is a Muslim Arab, he is a killer.'

That old, dangerous phrase 'Arab terrorist' is back in vogue in the West. But President Saddam, who only two months ago was still being demonised as the West's most sinister enemy in the Middle East, has - remarkably - avoided any condemnation during the events of the past week. Does the West, yet again, need President Saddam as a bulwark against 'terrorist' Iran?

Arab journalists are puzzled by a number of developments:

Why should the Jordanian-Palestinian Mohamed Salameh - if he is so professional a 'terrorist' - have hired a van in his own name and claimed back a deposit on the vehicle allegedly used in the Manhattan bombing after saying it had been stolen? And why should he have left a trail that led so directly towards Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, at whose Jersey City mosque Mr Salameh worshipped and whose arrest and deportation to Egypt - where he is a wanted man - would deprive the Islamic opposition there of their most revered leader?

Why should the New York bombing coincide with a written State Department claim that censures Iran in almost the same words with which the Americans recently condemned Iraq? And if Iran is guilty of 'terrorism', was not Serbia a thousand times more guilty after the mass rape of Muslim women in Bosnia?

Why should Congressman Alphonse D'Amato claim that Hamas is a 'terrorist' movement at the very moment when hundreds of Hamas supporters, expelled by Israel against international law and in defiance of a UN Security Council resolution, remain stranded in southern Lebanon?

No evidence has yet been produced as to why Mr Salameh may have wanted to place a bomb in Manhattan. Nor has any direct link been established between the bombing and the Sheikh. Sheikh Omar has hardly concealed his views. In an interview with me in his Jersey City mosque in November, he openly called for the death of President Hosni Mubarak.

The timing of the State Department's attack on Iran is more mysterious. The Iranians have said it is a prelude to accusing Iran of the New York bombing. Last Friday in Tehran, Ayatollah Ahmed Jannati asked how the US could make such claims when it had given asylum to the 'terrorist' Iraqi-based Iranian opposition, the Mujahedin el-Khalq. But last November he claimed 'the Americans keep saying Iran is a threat . . . which is true. We're glad to learn we are making our intentions known.'

The re-established belief in the US that Israeli and American interests coincide probably made the new anti-Hamas restrictions certain. With 'fundamentalist' now also inextricably linked to 'terrorist', the latest demonisation of Arabs was inevitable. The New York bomb has seen to that. President Saddam will be watching with interest.