'Terror' drives US diplomats from Mid-East

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ROBERT FISK

Beirut

Washington's decision on Wednesday to withdraw its embassy staff from Khartoum - far from being just a response to another "terrorist" threat - represents another fundamental shrinkage of America's presence in the Middle East. Its departure from Sudan, at a time when the world is being asked to applaud Washington's reported success in an Arab-Israeli peace, means that not a single American diplomat remains in more than half the land mass of the Middle East.

For the US now has no embassies in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Libya and - in a few days - Sudan. Its diplomats live in virtual fortresses in Algiers, Beirut and Cairo; US citizens are still banned from travelling to Lebanon and are advised to take special security precautions in Egypt, the West Bank, Gaza and, in the last 24 hours, in Saudi Arabia as well. The shrinkage will inevitably mean that US intelligence - never very impressive in the Middle East - will be even more ineffective.

The United States abandoned Iran after its diplomats were taken hostage by followers of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1980, and closed its compound in Baghdad after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait 10 years later. The departure of 30 US diplomats from Khartoum on commercial flights over the next few days will mark the third time Washington has evacuated the Sudanese capital in a decade. In 1986, 200 American diplomats and dependants were flown out of Khartoum after an embassy communications officer was shot and seriously wounded in the city; in 1993, more diplomats' families received State Department orders to leave after Washington put Sudan on a list of countries that "sponsor terrorism".

The latest evacuation follows the UN Security Council's demand that Sudan hand over three men who it claimed were responsible for the attempted assassination of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in Ethiopia last June. The men - all believed to be Egyptian - tried to kill the leader of America's most important Arab ally when he arrived in a motorcade to attend the Organisation of African Unity conference in Addis Ababa.

American diplomats from Khartoum will be relocated, according to the State Department, in a "neighbouring country" - probably Egypt, although Nairobi has been used as a bolt-hole in the past - to "maintain contact" with Sudan. No such evacuation, however, can be contemplated from Riyadh, where US sources claimed on Wednesday that they had received "new and disturbing reports that . . . American interests will be targeted by terrorists". US citizens were advised to watch out for letter bombs. Five American military advisers to the Saudi National Guard - responsible for Saudi Arabia's war against Islamist militants who claim the kingdom is corrupt - were killed in a car bomb explosion in Riyadh last November.

Washington's isolation within the Middle East has been further increased by the renewal of the US travel ban on Lebanon, imposed after the 1985 hijack of a TWA jet to Beirut but allegedly maintained because of America's fear that "terrorists" remain in Lebanon. The State Department - which loyally followed Israel's demand for the disarming of Hizbollah guerrillas attacking Israel's occupation army in southern Lebanon - says that it wishes the Lebanese government to take further steps to hunt down the men who killed the US ambassador to Beirut in 1976, and 241 US servicemen in 1983.

Such demands are at odds with the scene in the Beirut supreme court, in which two Palestinians have been on trial for the 1976 kidnapping of the ambassador, Francis Meloy. Although the Lebanese authorities are asking for the death penalty against the men, one of whom has admitted driving the kidnappers' car, not a single US diplomat has turned up for the hearings. And since US citizens are more at risk in Algeria - where dozens of foreigners have been murdered by Islamists - or in Egypt, where an American is among those killed by Islamist gunmen - the travel ban on Lebanon looks more than ever political.

It has already cut the US out of the lion's share of post-war Lebanese reconstruction being gained by France, Britain, Germany and other European nations. Middle East Airlines, the Lebanese carrier, needs to renew its ageing Boeing 707s, but now seems likely to give replacement orders to Airbus.

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