Thu, May 15, 2003 - Page 9 News List

US pullout just what bin Laden wanted all along

By Saad Al-Fagih  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

If the decision to pull US forces out of Saudi Arabia had been announced before the war on Iraq, it would have been seen, correctly, as a major victory for Osama bin Laden and his supporters. Al-Qaeda began its campaign with the demand for a withdrawal of American troops from the country. Timing the announcement for the aftermath of the war has been clearly calculated to minimize that perception.

The Americans discovered soon after the 1991 Gulf War that the presence of their forces in Saudi Arabia was doing them more harm than good. Alternative locations would have been sufficient for their purposes.

But they did not want to leave because their departure would have been seen as a political breakthrough for bin Laden.

The invasion of Iraq provided an ideal solution. It broke the link between the presence of US forces and the threat from former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. At another level, it eased the American crisis of confidence after the events of Sept. 11, which made the US avoid any decision that might make it seem weak.

The removal of Saddam in such a dramatic manner has almost treated this obsession. The decision to leave Saudi Arabia can now appear to have been taken from a position of strength.

Al-Qaeda sympathizers see it differently. But the majority would concede that invading and occupying Iraq has made the presence of a few thousand troops in the kingdom a less significant issue.

It is also clear that this will not be a real departure. Although troops in uniform will leave, the overall establishment -- including bases and non-uniformed personnel -- is to stay. More important still is the green light that has been given for the troops to return without fresh Saudi approval.

Nor is the decision to withdraw likely to reduce Muslim hostility towards America. Many Muslims regard US actions since the September events as far more oppressive to them than the presence of their forces in Arabia.

The invasion and occupation of Iraq will never be seen as a liberation.

The sight of US tanks in Baghdad has been regarded as the most humiliating event for Arabs and Muslims since 1967. Baghdad, the capital of the Islamic Caliphate for 600 years, occupies a central place in the Muslim memory and means more even than Riyadh or Cairo.

After 1998, bin Laden had in any case gone beyond the aim of expelling American forces from the kingdom to full-scale confrontation with the US. Bin Laden and his supporters can now be expected to see his war as more justified than ever because of the occupation of Iraq.

The US invasion of Iraq has been a gift to bin Laden. He had argued that Muslim countries are the main target -- and Iraq was attacked, not North Korea. Bin Laden argued that the US was bent on occupation, not simply intimidation -- and that has proved to be the case.

He argued that most Arab leaders, and especially the Saudis, would side with the US against their fellow Arabs -- as it has turned out.

He argued that Baathism and Arab nationalism do not work and that only Islam and jihad can deliver for the Muslims and Arabs. The collapse of the Sad-dam regime has strengthened that argument.

The course of the conflict also bore out bin Laden's view that only "asymmetrical warfare'' can be effective against such highly advanced military power.

US ruthlessness in killing civilians, destroying infrastructure and the encouragement it gave to the destruction of valuable heritage and public records has also bolstered the al-Qaeda message.

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