Hussein warns of religious tensions

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KING HUSSEIN of Jordan yesterday warned that growing tensions between the three great monotheistic religions was leading to a dangerous situation where the West was casting Islam as the new threat facing the world.

'A rift is developing which threatens the cohesion . . . and the tolerance between the three great monotheistic religions, not only in the (Middle East) region but in the world,' the King said in an address to government officials, diplomats and defence experts at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

He said the rift was worrisome in that it was leading to a lack of understanding, particularly where Islam was concerned. He pledged to defend Islam against an increasingly negative image in the world.

At the same time the King said that the recent US bombing of Iraq was viewed by many in the Muslim world as a hypocritical use of power, which only caused suffering to the people of Iraq and did little if any damage to the Iraqi leadership. Change in Iraq, King Hussein said, must be made by the Iraqi people and he cautioned against any further use of force. 'If further strikes occur, people are only getting angrier. Why? they ask. Who suffers? What is achieved?'

The theme of his speech was peace in the Middle East and he urged all participants at the Middle East peace talks next Thursday to seize what he called a last chance for peace in the region. Considerable ground had been gained at the peace talks so far, he said, but further progress depended on clarification of transitional arrangements for limited Palestinian self-rule in the Israeli-occupied territories. He said there was 'fear and suspicion amongst those representing the Palestinian people that transitional arrangements may be the final arrangements'.

His remarks coincided with two Israeli newspaper reports which said that Israel's Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, has proposed that Arab and Israeli negotiators at talks on the occupied territories agree the goal is a Jordanian-Palestinian entity.

BAGHDAD - The top UN arms envoy, Rolf Ekeus, arrived in Baghdad yesterday in an attempt to defuse a crisis over monitoring of missile sites that could lead to fresh attacks on Iraq, Reuter reports.

'I hope that we will have the possibility of bridging the differences that exist between the UN Special Commission on the one side and the Iraqi government on the other side,' Mr Ekeus said after arriving.

Mr Ekeus is the highest-ranking UN official to visit Iraq since the latest standoff began a week ago, when Baghdad refused a UN demand to allow thesealing of missile-testing equipment. President Bill Clinton, Vice- President Al Gore and the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, have indicated military action may be necessary if Iraq does not back down.

Mr Ekeus, who heads the UN Special Commission (Unscom) overseeing compliance with Gulf war ceasefire terms, said he would spend a few days in Iraq. He was to hold his first meeting with the Foreign Minister, Muhammad Said Kazim al-Sahhaf, yesterday evening.