Another fatal day in the 'war on terror'

Patrick Cockburn, the award-winning journalist and author, has reported extensively from Iraq, Afghanistan and Jordan. Here, he explains how the 'war on terror' has fuelled resentment of the West and brought new levels of death and destruction
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The Independent Online

Yesterday was another black day in the "war on terror". Across the Middle East, wave upon wave of violence engulfed the region and paid testament to the new, bloody reality five years on from 11 September.

The focus of some of the violence yesterday, the victims of attacks in Iraq, in Afghanistan and in Jordan, were Britons. Be they military or civilian, British citizens are increasingly at risk everywhere in the area because Britain is seen as the closest political and military ally of the US.

A group of tourists were looking at the remains of a Roman amphitheatre in the heart of Amman, the capital of Jordan, yesterday morning when a lone gunman approached them, shouting "Allahu Akbar" - " God is Great" - and opening fire. One Briton was killed and six other people, including two UK nationals, were wounded. A Jordanian man was arrested for the shooting. Hundreds of miles away across the great stony desert dividing Jordan from Iraq, a British military unit came under attack at Ad Diyar, north of Basra. A roadside bomb tore apart their vehicle, killing two British soldiers and severely wounding a third. The deaths bring the total number of British dead in Iraq to 117. Still further east in Kabul, Afghanistan, a suicide bomber in a car blew himself up beside a British convoy, killing one British soldier and wounding three others, one of them seriously. Four Afghans were also killed.

It may be egocentric to write only of British dead. They are but a small percentage of the casualties in the multiple crises which are now cross-infecting each other in the Middle East.

Abdul Rahman Imran, a Palestinian I met in Nablus in the West Bank yesterday, spoke with anger of the plight of his people while the world looks away. In July and August, 251 Palestinians were killed by the Israeli army. Half of them were civilians, including women, children and the elderly, the Israeli daily Haaretz said.

It may soon become uncommon for a day to pass without a Briton, soldier or tourist, to be killed somewhere in the Middle East. It is dangerous to be a foreigner in any part of Iraq but I noticed last year that my Iraqi translator had started stressing to anybody we met that I was Irish rather than British. He claimed that The Independent was a well-known Scandinavian publication. Mr Imran is just one of many in the region whose outrage at the British and US governments is growing every day. "I want to kill Bush and Blair because of what they have done to us," he said. "They are against Islam whether it is in Palestine, Iraq or Afghanistan."

To Tony Blair, due to visit Israel next weekend, the problem is very straightforward. Speaking in Los Angeles last month he produced a terrifyingly over- simple view of the Middle East saying "the Iraqi and Afghan fight for democracy is our fight. Same values. Same enemy." He claimed that "we have to empower Moderate, Mainstream Islam to defeat Reactionary Islam". The American and British governments will apparently decide in future just who belongs to the latter strand of Islam and go to war with them. They will have their work cut out. The Britons who were killed yesterday in attacks across the Middle East died at the hands of very different people. The suicide bomber in Kabul was almost certainly sent on his mission by the Taliban, who are fundamentalist Sunni Muslims.

The Taliban might not even recognise as Muslim the men, almost certainly Shia in the south of Iraq, who planted the roadside bomb that killed two British soldiers north of Basra.

I have spent most of my time since 2001 in Afghanistan and Iraq. The reason for the rise of radical Islam is foreign occupation. Iraq had a secular tradition. Fanatical Islamic groups made little headway under Saddam Hussein not only because he persecuted them but because they had little popular support.

But the five million-strong Sunni community in Iraq almost entirely supported armed resistance to the US occupation. Fanatical Islamic groups were for the first time operating in a friendly environment.

At one moment in the past year the many Sunni insurgent groups debated whether they should try to hammer out a common platform. They eventually decided that their differences were too deep for unity on most issues but they were all agreed on opposition to the occupation and they concluded this was sufficient to hold them together.

One of the most extraordinary aspects of Tony Blair's analysis of militant Islam is his blindness to the extent to which foreign invasion and occupation has radicalised the region and legitimised militant Islam. For instance this weekend a group of Palestinian students in Jerusalem were debating the impact of the war in Lebanon on Palestinian fortunes. The issue which most interested them was the reason why Hizbollah was able to withstand Israeli attacks compared with the failure of secular nationalist movements such as Fatah, led by Yasser Arafat for so many years.

Across the Middle East secularist and nationalist regimes are being discredited by the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon. Most governments in the region are corrupt patronage machines backed by brutal security services. They are close to the US but have little influence over it. All are becoming unstable in a way not seen since the 1960s.

The attack by a lone gunman in Jordan holds another dangerous message. At the end of 2001 I was able to stroll through the streets of Kabul and Kandahar without fear of being attacked. I drove between the two cities in a taxi. The same was true in Baghdad under Saddam Hussein and during the first months of the occupation. In 2003 I drove down to Basra in southern Iraq and up to Mosul in the far north without incident.

If I tried to repeat any of these journeys in Iraq or Afghanistan today I would certainly be killed. The rest of the Middle East is becoming more dangerous by the day.

The real reason of the increasing violence in the Middle East is the return to imperial control and foreign occupation half a century after the European colonial empires were broken up. This is the fuel for Islamic militancy. This is why fanatical but isolated Islamic groups can suddenly win broader support. Governments allied to the US and Britain have no legitimacy. The attempts by America and Britain to crush Islamic militancy across the Middle East are making sure it will become stronger.

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