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Mon, Nov 05, 2001 - Page 4 News List

US dispatches PR teams to woo Muslims

ISLAMIC ANGER The war on terror is also a war for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world, and the US may be losing the battle


The front line of America's new war is a living room in the Old City of Jerusalem, where Vienia Naber is preparing sweet mint tea for her family gathered around a 53cm television.

It is Independence Square in Dakar, Senegal, where businessman Mamadou Sarr is growing angry about the latest news from Afghanistan.

It is an apartment in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where two-year-old Lomesh Vengadesperumal is tumbling on the cushions of the sofa and uttering his first English words: "Finished." "Died." "Pentagon."

Even as US warplanes pound positions of Afghanistan's ruling Taliban and of terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network in response to the Sept. 11 attacks in the US, another war has begun.

It is a war for the hearts and minds of the Islamic world, and so far things don't look good for the US.

From Tehran to Timbuktu, from Jerusalem to Jakarta, people scattered across the wildly diverse nations of the Muslim world are increasingly voicing anger at the war effort after seeing television images of Afghan civilians caught up in the US-led campaign.

Taliban officials claim 1,500 people have been killed in the air assault. The US, which denies targeting civilians, insists Taliban claims are exaggerated and says some civilians could have been killed by falling anti-aircraft fire.

US President George W. Bush has expended tremendous efforts getting leaders of the Muslim world to support the war effort. But while some administration officials have appeared on television programs aimed at the Islamic world, it wasn't until this week that Bush dispatched public relations teams to London and Islamabad to help get his message to the public.

Bin Laden, the chief suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks, released a videotaped message for broadcast within hours of the start of US airstrikes on Oct. 7. This week, in a written message, he appealed to Muslims to overthrow their US-allied governments and install fundamentalist regimes.

In the days after Sept. 11, Mus-lims across the world described sadness and sympathy for Americans when they watched images of the devastation in the US unfold.

But scenes relayed by national television stations, the Arabic-language Al-Jazeera network, and even Western broadcasters like CNN, the BBC and France's TV5 of Afghan civilian casualties have turned the tide of public opinion in many countries.

"In the beginning, I had sympathy for the Americans, but when I saw the images, it was different," says Sarr, the 39-year-old Senegalese businessman. "They had a terrible effect. It provokes a great deal of emotion in people. We feel more sympathy for the Afghans."

Similar sentiments are abundant on the streets of Bamako, Mali; at a boutique in Abuja, Nigeria; at an upscale apartment in Beirut, Lebanon; at the mosques of Jakarta, Indonesia -- and across the Muslim world, 1 billion people strong.

Even in the Palestinian areas, where celebrations on Sept. 11 drew international condemnation, many people were horrified by the attacks -- but are now equally horrified by the unintended effects of the US war.

In Jerusalem's Old City, 63-year-old Boutros Naber tells his sons to be quiet as he settles into his brown sofa to watch the news.

"We watch the footage of the victims in New York and we feel sad. And the footage of the civilian victims in Afghanistan and we feel sad," he says. "Because as Palestinians, we know the meaning of being victimized."

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