Arab Allies Unconvinced by Evidence

.c The Associated Press

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) - Washington's NATO partners listened to the evidence against terror suspect Osama bin Laden and responded by lending military hardware.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair listened and declared unequivocally that America had identified those responsible for the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States.

But in the Mideast, allies listened and, at least publicly, remain unconvinced America has enough proof for its war on terrorism, which began Sunday with strikes against largely Muslim Afghanistan.

That has been clear in recent days in the silence in several key Arab capitals, where officials have received briefings on U.S. evidence against bin Laden, a Saudi exile living in Afghanistan who has been accused of masterminding the attacks.

With no official guidance, ordinary Arabs speculate wildly. One popular rumor has it that Israel was behind the attacks as part of a plot to defame Muslims.

``America rushed into this. There is no evidence,'' Mohammed Fathi, a 20-year-old student, said Sunday as he gathered with friends around a television in a Cairo cafe to watch news of the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan.

Most Arab states are autocracies in which the masses have little influence over policy. Nonetheless, widespread opposition to joining a U.S. anti-terror coalition has made leaders in the region wary of publicly aligning themselves with Washington.

Again and again since Sept. 11, protesters on the streets and politicians in parliaments have linked the attacks on New York and Washington to anger at America's Mideast policy. Among other complaints, the United States is seen as favoring Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians and trying to destroy Iraq through sanctions dating from the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Walid Kazziha, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo, said that if any Arab leader publicly stated that bin Laden masterminded the suicide attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, ``people will say, `Look, he's been bought by the Americans.'''

In Egypt, which helped the United States persuade other Arab states to join the Gulf War coalition against Iraq, newspapers have reported only briefly that U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld briefed officials on the evidence against bin Laden during a visit to Cairo last week.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal was quoted by Time magazine as saying Saudi Arabia believed U.S. evidence showed bin Laden was responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks. But the Saudi media had not conveyed that to the Saudi people.

Saudi Arabia, which hosts a large U.S. air base, has said no troops would be allowed to use its bases to launch attacks on Arabs or Muslims.

NATO members, in contrast, granted the United States access to their airfields and seaports and agreed to deploy ships and early warning radar planes in Washington's war against terrorism.

In Kuwait, which owes its liberation from Iraq to a U.S.-led coalition, an official said in Sunday papers that Kuwait had received evidence against bin Laden, but made no further comment.

On Sunday, Syrian Prime Minister Mohammad Mustafa Miro called for an international conference on how to deal with terrorism and distinguish between terrorist cells and groups trying to end the Israeli occupation of Arab lands.

The proposed meeting should ``differentiate between terrorism and the right of people to liberate their land,'' Miro said.

The call comes ahead of a crucial Oct. 10 meeting of the Organization of Islamic Conference member states in Doha, Qatar, where discussions are expected to focus on a unified Muslim position on terrorism.

AP-NY-10-08-01 0215EDT

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