Envoy leaves for new mission

Zinni faces rising anger, violence

March 13, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - With President Bush's special envoy, Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, leaving today for a new mission to quell Israeli-Palestinian fighting, the stakes in American intervention are growing by the day - and can't be measured just by the rising toll of victims.

The anger in the Arab world directed at Israel - and at the United States as Israel's chief backer - raises the pressure on moderate Arab regimes allied with Washington. It also undercuts efforts by Vice President Dick Cheney, on a multination tour of the Middle East, to build regional support for an expanded war on terrorism and possible U.S. military action against Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq.

What's more, the conflict threatens to spill beyond Israel and the Palestinian territories. Hezbollah, the Iraq-backed group that claims credit for pushing Israel out of southern Lebanon in May 2000, is again moving weapons into Lebanon just north of the Israeli border. Its leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, has pledged to help the Palestinians with deeds, not just words.

The guerrilla group "is trying to branch out and get itself more involved," a State Department official said yesterday.

On the ground, a sharp escalation has taken hold even in the brief period since Zinni's mission was hastily decided upon and announced by Bush last week. In the five days since then, Palestinians have stepped up the pace of shootings and suicide bombings. And Israel has sent its forces into Palestinian refugee camps and urban areas, leaving scores dead as soldiers went house to house in a campaign to round up militants while leveling Yasser Arafat's Gaza compound from the air.

Zinni, a retired Marine Corps general who commanded U.S. forces in the Middle East and Central Asia, will labor against long odds to try to produce a cease-fire and renewed cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security officials in preventing new outbreaks of violence.

Attempts in December and January ended in failure. Indeed, Zinni's presence in the region seemed to invite defiance from extremists, resulting in a wave of suicide and shooting attacks. And as Zinni arrived in early January, Israel intercepted a shipment of arms from Iran headed for Arafat's Palestinian Authority.

In the weeks that followed, U.S. policy-makers abandoned a neutral mediating role, all but shunning Arafat while pressuring him publicly to crack down on the militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad. At the same time, it avoided criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's tactics.

By last week, that approach was in tatters as the region experienced the worst spasm of bloodshed since the conflict erupted 17 months ago. The visiting Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, warned in Washington of "more escalation, more losses, and I am afraid ... the whole area will be in trouble."

Meanwhile, both sides in the conflict appeared to be following strategies that pointed toward ever-greater bloodshed and diminished chances for a cease-fire.

Regarding Israel, U.S. officials became alarmed at Sharon's stated belief that only after the Palestinians were beaten could peace take hold. U.S. officials also criticized an Israeli offensive in which civilians, including emergency medical personnel, were being killed and injured in growing numbers.

As to the Palestinians, the United States was forced to wrestle with new indications that Arafat is more than just a leader who fails to control militants. Signs suggest that he is not only tolerating the assaults on Israel but also inspiring them. The Aqsa Martyrs, a group associated with Arafat's Fatah faction, has claimed responsibility for an increasing number of attacks.

"Clearly, what we're doing isn't working," a senior administration official said last week as the White House prepared to announce the new Zinni mission.

U.S. leadership in the war on terror is being measured by Arabs against its relative inaction in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, dissatisfaction over the American role has threatened to engulf the Cheney trip.

In Jordan yesterday, Cheney got a sharp taste of Arab leaders' priorities. King Abdullah warned that an attack on Iraq could destabilize the region and undermine progress made in Afghanistan.

A palace statement said the United States must play an essential role in ending "the cycle of violence" between Israel and the Palestinians.

Zinni will press the two sides to carry out a series of security measures in a plan prepared last year by George J. Tenet, the director of the CIA. Among other steps, the plan requires the Palestinian Authority to launch "preemptive operations against terrorists, terrorist safehouses, arms depots and mortar factories," as well as arresting and jailing terrorists.

Soon after the cease-fire process begins, Israel would be obliged to start pulling back its forces to the positions they occupied before the conflict broke out in 2000.

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