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Bush administration's Mideast strategy could backfire, critics say

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia—Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and President Bush say they're not pressing for a quick cease-fire in Lebanon because they want a lasting peace instead.

However, the administration's fundamental assumptions—that it's impossible to get both a quick end to the killings and a durable peace, and that a cease-fire would be a step away from real peace rather than toward it—are open to question.

So far, the Israeli campaign in Lebanon appears to be strengthening the militant Islamic group Hezbollah and its allies in Syria and Iran and weakening Lebanon's fragile democratic government, not the other way around.

In the longer run, critics say, Bush's and Rice's refusal to intervene more forcefully is helping push Hezbollah to new heights of popularity across the Arab world, sowing anger at the tacit U.S. backing of the Israeli offensive and weakening America's relations with its friends in Europe and the Muslim world.

"Hezbollah is now seen as (leading) the Arab resistance to Israel," said Fouad Makhzoumi, a Lebanese businessman and political figure, in a telephone interview from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

"Today, if you go and conduct a poll in the Arab world and ask who is the number one leader, I'm sure it's (Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan) Nasrallah," said Makhzoumi.

In the streets of the Malaysian capital on Friday, several thousand protesters filed past Rice's hotel, waving Nasrallah's picture and Hezbollah's yellow flag, and holding placards denouncing the U.S. secretary of state, Bush and the U.S. alliance with Israel. Malaysia's population is predominantly Sunni Muslim.

The conflict in Lebanon appears to be fusing together two longtime enemies, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, large swaths of whom are now united in anger at Israel and the United States.

Even al-Qaida's No. 2 leader, Ayman al Zawahri, whose fundamentalist Sunni terrorist group considers Shiites apostates, weighed in last week with support for Hezbollah, a Shiite group backed by Shiite Iran.

Sunni leaders in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and elsewhere initially criticized Hezbollah for sparking the crisis by kidnapping two Israeli soldiers and launching rockets into Israel. But the mood is rapidly shifting.

"What was striking in the early days after the beginning of the hostilities was the widespread criticism of the Hezbollah, including by Arab governments," Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, said in Washington.

"I am afraid that with conflict continuing, the radicalization of the Arab masses is going to become more pervasive, the sympathy for the Hezbollah more extensive, and as a consequence, the prospects for a favorable outcome beyond some sort of ad hoc solution will be reduced," Brzezinski said.

The Bush administration, however, sees Lebanon much as it sees Iraq and Afghanistan: as one battlefield in a global war between Islamic terrorism and democracy, and that democracy is winning. What the region is experiencing, Rice said, are "the birth pangs of a new Middle East."

"I'm a student of history," Rice told reporters en route to Malaysia, "so perhaps I have a little bit more patience with enormous change in the international system, and it's a big shifting of tectonic plates, and I don't expect it to happen in a few days or even in a year."

The question is whether the administration's patience with the violence in Lebanon will help those tectonic plates shift in the direction of democracy and tolerance or whether, as it has before in the Mideast, violence will only beget more violence.


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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