Wary neighbours watch and wait

04 April 2003
After a brief initial push towards Baghdad, US troops in early April consolidated their positions in the second week of conflict. As coalition aircraft continued to pound military targets in and around the capital, the invading forces concentrated their efforts on firming up vulnerable supply lines and cordoning off centres of resistance along the Euphrates. Meanwhile, the death toll on both sides continued to rise, with American and British forces taking casualties in and around the cities of Basra, Najaf, Nasiriyah and Kut.

Harder to determine was the long-term collateral damage to diplomatic relations in the region, as Washington stepped up its rhetorical pressure on Iran and Syria. The popular conviction in Middle East countries is that the US-led campaign in Iraq is only the first step in an imperial reordering of the region. The Bush administration has done little to disabuse people of this notion. Within the space of 48 hours, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell all appeared on US television to accuse Tehran and Damascus of supporting terrorism, claiming Syria was channelling weapons to Iraq and warning both countries to stay clear of the conflict.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry on 30 March vehemently denied Rumsfeld's accusation of weapon smuggling: 'It is an absolutely unfounded, irresponsible statement, just like his statements that brought his country and the allied countries into a terrible, unnecessary war in Iraq.'

While the claims of arms trafficking are new, the accusations of terrorism are not. Attempts by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to brand Hezbollah a terrorist group have gained greater credence in Washington in the past year, despite the group's own claims that it is legitimately defending Lebanon against Israeli aggression. Iran and Syria have both provided support for the group in the past. Branded by President Bush as part of the 'axis of evil', Iran has caused further consternation in Washington with the pursuit of its nuclear programme.

Further from the arena of war, US relations with Jordan and Egypt - two of its key political allies and economic beneficiaries - have deteriorated rapidly. Amman and Cairo have seen some of the angriest demonstrations against the conflict in the Arab world. King Abdullah on 3 April echoed Egyptian President Mubarak's fears that the war would create '100 Bin Ladens instead of just one'. He also voiced a fear shared by many of Iraq's neighbours: 'We can't imagine that any people could accept a leadership imposed from outside and against its will.'

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