TOPICS > World

Shock Waves

July 7, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: Why was Ambassador Ihab al-Sherif, the head of Egypt’s diplomatic mission in Iraq the target of terrorists? And what is the impact of the assaults on Arab and Muslim diplomats there?

For that we turn to Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief for the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar, he also hosts a weekly program on the Arab satellite channel, Al-Arabiya; and to Vali Nasr, professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. Welcome to you both.

Hisham Melhem, we had three attacks against Arab diplomats in Baghdad this week and now this execution, apparently, of the Egyptian envoy. What is behind this?

HISHAM MELHEM: I think this campaign of intimidation and terror that’s being waged by the Zarqawi group seeks to deprive the new Iraqi government of any kind of Arab and/or Muslim legitimacy. Hence we have seen the attacks against the Bahraini charge, the Pakistani ambassador and now the kidnapping and the murder of Ambassador Sherif.

The timing probably is a response to the stepped-up call on the part of the United States to Arab and Muslim countries to elevate the diplomatic profile in Iraq. And, in fact, we know that the Egyptian government is moving in that direction, elevating its diplomatic representation in Baghdad to a full-fledged embassy. And they targeted Egypt specifically because Egypt, being the largest and most important Arab country, Egypt could be the trendsetter here.

In other words, if the Egyptians send the ambassador or elevate their profile in Baghdad, other Muslim and Arab states could follow suit, and because also Egypt’s diplomatic significant control at the recent international conference on Iraq in Brussels and also Egypt being the host at Sharm el Sheikh of all the neighboring countries, and also, as they said in their statements after the killing of Mr. Sherif, that they targeting Egypt because Egypt is the first country that began to train Iraqi policemen and Iraqi officers.

And also they accused Egypt of an Egyptian legal system of targeting the Islamists and the mujahideen in Egypt’s jails that are full, according to them, of mujahideen and even they mentioned the name, of course, of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the second man in al-Qaida.

TERENCE SMITH: Vali Nasr, do you conquer that the purpose here is to de-legitimize to a degree the new government in Iraq?

VALI NASR: Yes, I do agree with Hisham. I think the end game for Zarqawi is to make sure that the Shia government in Iraq backed by the United States is not able to stabilize itself, that it’s not able to provide security, it’s not able to govern, it’s not able to pass a constitution and more importantly that it does not receive the legitimacy of the other governments and particularly the governments in the region.

And this goes on the belief that if the government crumbles, if the United States is forced to leave, that the order, the Shia order that’s been set up in Iraq will also crumble and governance would revert back to the Sunnis. And it is important to note that this attack comes also in the same week as there were rumors that Zarqawi has set up an Omar Brigade as a counter to the Shiite Badr Brigade, making this more of a sectarian approach.

TERENCE SMITH: So you see it as well that way — that it has these internal elements to it as well?

HISHAM MELHEM: Absolutely. I mean, Zarqawi himself attacked the Badr Brigade, announcing, as we’ve heard, the formation of the Omar Brigade; they’ve been targeting Shia mosques. They have been assassinating officials in the Shia groups, political parties in Iraq.

The aim of Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden and some of those jihadists who are coming from a number of Arabs and Muslim states is to really deepen the sectarian divide between the Sunnis and the Shia by portraying the new regime in Iraq as essentially a Shia regime that is going to follow the Iranian model. And that’s why they are playing on the fears and the concerns of some in the Sunni community.

And they are trying to prevent the new government from ending a constitution, writing a full constitution and preparing for the next stage and I think they want to show that this government is impotent; that it is exposed. In fact, in their statement they said they mock the American government, that the Americans cannot protect themselves, how can they be expected to protect others in Iraq? So that’s the aim definitely.

TERENCE SMITH: Vali Nasr, the Egyptian government announced late today that it was at least temporarily closing its mission there in Baghdad, so has this succeeded in at least that objective?

VALI NASR: It has and it has also succeeded in something Hisham appointed to – namely, that neither the Iraqi government nor the United States is capable of providing diplomatic security for the foreign personnel in Iraq and that essentially portrays the government in Baghdad as impotent and suggests that the regime in Iraq, the al-Jaafari government in Iraq, is not able to bring normalcy to the point that which you could open embassies in that country.

TERENCE SMITH: Well now the United States was not charged with providing protection, were they, for Arab diplomats in Baghdad?

HISHAM MELHEM: No, no, that’s true. The Americans are not involved in this; in fact the Iraqi government is urging the ambassador, Zawahiri, in Iraq today to seek greater Iraqi protection and, in fact, they were critical of some Arab envoys and diplomats in Baghdad who are moving on their own, refusing to be provided Iraqi protection. And, in fact, when you look at the circumstances of the kidnapping of the Egyptian ambassador, it was shocking to learn that he was alone.

In fact, the minister of interior of Iraq today criticized an Arab ambassador without naming him for attempting to contact the insurgents. And that’s going to probably create some problems. The Iraqis essentially are saying you have to come to us, tell us about your movements. We are going to escort you not to watch you but to provide you with that kind of — with protection.

What happened today, the Egyptian government announced that they are going to shut down their mission there. The Pakistanis did the same, the Bahrainis did the same temporarily, of course — but still, this shows, like the Madrid bombing more than a year ago, that terrorism, unfortunately, succeeds, and in this case it did.

TERENCE SMITH: Vali Nasr, what do you think will be the repercussions in the Arab world generally?

VALI NASR: Well, they are multiple. I mean, aside from the technicality of who was in charge of security on the streets, it’s obvious that this is an American project in Iraq; the United States is behind the government and is providing majority of the security and the training for the security.

Secondly, at the regional level, the Arab governments that are allies of the United States are involved in providing security regionally. That goes from Egypt’s involvement in the Gaza Strip to its assistance with training of security forces in Iraq. And to force the Egyptian government to withdraw its ambassador from Iraq, it is a huge blow essentially to the whole project of having a regional order support the United States in building security in the region.

It also can create, at a sort of a perfunctory level, a revulsion towards terrorism on the streets in Cairo and other Arab cities. But at the same time it puts the whole involvement of other governments in the region in security building in Iraq to debate in the same manner as was mentioned Madrid did with the Spanish government.

In other words, the question will come that, you know, this is no longer killing of Iraqis killing each other far away; this is Iraqis killing Egyptians. Should we be there; should we be supporting this endeavor? Is this endeavor being implemented correctly? These things can now be put to debate in the Arab world.

TERENCE SMITH: Is this now, Hisham Melhem, another task that the United States has to take on in Iraq?

HISHAM MELHEM: You mean providing protection? Probably so, but I think most diplomats would not accept that and they shouldn’t accept that. This should be the responsibility of the host government, which is Iraq.

But if there is a silver lining, I think this should make it clear to people in the Arab world, especially in the Arab media and among some Arab officials and academics who have at times glorified the so-called resistance in Iraq, lumping together all acts of violence under the banner of resistance, while we know that not more than 90 percent of what happened in Iraq are acts of terror and criminality, to take another look at these characters in Iraq who are, especially those who came from abroad, and are wreaking havoc in Iraq and creating the monstrosities that we’ve seen in the last few days concerning the foreign diplomats.

TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Hisham Melhem, Vali Nasr, thank you both very much.