Inside File: Closing the door on Mr Haddam

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The Independent Online
LONDON has finally abandoned its city of freedom policy towards Islamic fundamentalists in a clear move to placate the French. Paris, understandably obsessed with the Algerian crisis, has grown increasingly exasperated with what it considers Britain's refusal to take the threat seriously.

And so it is that British officials were uncharacteristically outspoken this week in predicting that Anwar Haddam, a leading Algerian fundamentalist residing legally in Washington, would be refused a visa when he tries to come to London next month to give a lecture at Chatham House. It is even more surprising considering the latter has not even filed his visa application yet.

Mr Haddam, who calls himself 'President of the FIS Parliamentary Delegation to Europe and the US', has sought to don what would be the respectable face of fundamentalism if there were such a thing. Elected an MP in Algeria's scrapped poll, he claims to be an adviser to the US Administration; insiders say he is a voice behind President Clinton's policy of encouraging an Algerian dialogue with 'moderate' fundamentalists.

Faced with growing French fury at its failure to adopt a zero- tolerance policy - the French were goggle-eyed that Islamists were given visas in order to take over Wembley stadium for their jamboree last month - Britain has conveniently found reason to refuse Mr Haddam's entry. They point out that following his reported defection to the Islamic Armed Group (GIA) - which has threatened to kill all foreigners in Algeria - even the FIS is said to have expelled him from its overseas executive.

The Home Office - under whose remit the question actually falls - is sticking to its rigorous refusal to discuss individual cases; but a Foreign Office source gaily volunteered: 'If I were you I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for him to be granted a visa.' There is no evidence that Mr Haddam is personally responsible for any terror act, but 'that he has supped with far too short a spoon with the devil is quite a good phrase'. Yet a month ago, when Mr Haddam was originally invited, the Foreign Office was critical, but not threatening to ban him outright: 'We merely told Chatham House not to expect a single Foreign Office face in the audience,' an official said.

French pressure has grown since then. Conventional Foreign Office code was used to confirm this: 'As you know, we are in constant touch with the French.' As for Mr Haddam's role in Washington, he added: 'I think you'll find he'll be less welcome there too.'

Two decades ago the IRA was allowed to set up shop in Paris, provided it did not commit any offence on French soil. London raised hell but, one insider recalls, the French only expelled the IRA after a spate of bombings in Paris- based British banks. France has since repented; it now expects Britain to keep its end up.

Keeping what peace there is with France is important; but some Maghreb analysts are not so sure banning Mr Haddam is wise. 'It's a terrible mistake,' one said. 'The British in Algeria have been reasonably spared attacks so far. Their diplomats have been able to operate more freely than most, and given Britain's policy of talking to as many quarters as possible, it would be a shame to lose that. British companies like BP have major interests there. I don't think they'd approve.'

Nor, for that matter, would another North African nation which is keeping its fundamentalists in check, for now: Tunisia. It claims to have achieved this through abandoning attempts at dialogue, locking up the Islamists and throwing away the key. It has never forgiven Britain for granting asylum last year to Rashid Ghannouchi, a Tunisian fundamentalist leader sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia. Britain argues Mr Ghannouchi is not personally linked to any act; but then, it admits the same of Mr Haddam. 'If Britain refuses Haddam entry without expelling Ghannouchi, there will be hell to pay,' said a Tunisian envoy. 'Especially as we know more Tunisian fundamentalists have been allowed into Britain in the past two months. We are not going to declare war on Britain, but we will be very hard. There are special channels we go through,' he added darkly.

Mr Haddam, meanwhile, appears to be playing it both ways to stay in Washington. The Arabic press this week reported his election as GIA foreign minister; Mr Haddam has denied all knowledge of his own appointment.