US anti-terror forum poised to miss target

PATRICK COCKBURN

Jerusalem

The US will tomorrow convene a meeting of anti-terrorism experts to agree new approaches to the problem in the Middle East. But they are likely to find their different analyses undermine efforts to find agreement.

In Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, a diplomat who fancies himself as an expert on counter- terrorism speaks of the "revolutionary party one moment as a perfectly disciplined army, where the word of chiefs was supreme, and at another as if it had been the loosest association of desperate brigands that ever camped in a mountain gorge".

The security specialists from 29 countries, who will gather in Washington in a follow-up to the Sharm el-Sheikh conference assembled by President Clinton two weeks ago, are likely to show similar confusion in their analysis of terrorist groups and measures to counter them.

First, evidence that the CIA supported a bombing campaign by the Iraqi opposition - as revealed in the Independent this week - means that the moral ground is muddy; second, the US leads the camp which sees terrorism as "a perfectly disciplined army", with its general headquarters in Iran. It has pointed its finger at Tehran ever since four suicide bombers from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the militant Palestinian Islamic movements, killed 62 people in Israel in nine days.

The problem with this thesis is that there is little evidence it is true; Hamas has traditionally drawn its support from Jordan. It is also in the nature of a suicide bombing that it requires little equipment, training or money. Iran may have been involved but the US has yet to produce evidence.

Despite this, the agenda of the Washington conference - it is to be followed by a meeting of foreign ministers on 14 April - will treat terrorism as the fruit of a single organisation.

Few European or Arab countries are happy with this. In so far as they have a picture of terrorists it is closer to the image of "an association of brigands". They see suicide bombs as the effect as much as the cause of a crumbling peace process.

President Clinton said: "The hard-won achievements of the Palestinian people are under direct assault." But in the Palestinian refugee camps, from where the bombers came, few have seen any of these achievements or benefited from them.

France and Egypt say they want the Washington agenda to be broadened to include obstacles to peace other than terrorism, such as Israel's decision to seal off Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. France also wants the EU to co-chair the next meeting and the one after that to be held in Paris.

Israel was buoyed by the Sharm el-Sheikh summit. More than any other US president before, Mr Clinton backed the Israeli position.

On Iran, the Israeli and US positions are the same. Shimon Peres, the prime minister, said: "Tehran has become the capital of terror." He has also been heartened by a slight recovery in the polls, but he remains vulnerable to another bomb.

Sharm el-Sheikh took place in the immediate aftermath of the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem bombings. Its success will be difficult to repeat. Great powers have been organising meetings to oppose terrorism for over a century with little success. They usually fail because the organisers see bombers and assassins as a minority who can be eliminated rather than the symptom of a broader political crisis.

Conferences like the one in Washington are also traditionally discredited by the large measure of hypocrisy involved. Iran may support Islamic Jihad, but the US admits to financing Iraqi opposition groups in Kurdistan which have, in turn, exploded bombs in the streets of Baghdad, killing more than 100 people in the past few years.

At heart, most countries recognise the only solution to terror is political. When Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, was pressing Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the PLO , to root out Hamas, the Palestinian leader is reputed to have replied: "I will follow the advice you Americans gave Algeria in dealing with their problems." His point was that the US had advised Algerian leaders to talk to their Islamic fundamentalist rebels because they can never be crushed.

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