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The Kosovo connection.

Although geographically far removed from the Middle East, the war in Kosovo - which could turn into "Europe's Lebanon" - could have far reaching effects on the region, especially in the light of leaked reports of collusion between Baghdad and Belgrade.

The fallout from the small war waged by NATO against Yugoslavia over Kosovo, diplomats and experts observed, could cover a much wider area. The crisis is likely to increase tension among the Balkans, historically tough fighting partisans, further inflame nationalist historic claims, and widen political divisions in the international arena. These events will directly affect the Middle East as radical Islamists gear up to get involved in "Europe's Lebanon".

The crisis is expected to exacerbate divisions and antagonism in the United Nations Security Council, along the lines of the cold war days. Russia, an ally of Serbia, sent warships into the region to keep a close eye on developments.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is already grinning. A protracted and costly campaign in the Balkans (already over $4 billion dollars at the time of going to print) could erode congressional willingness to approve finances for United States operations in the Gulf.

"Why doesn't Saddam make his move now while America is busy with Yugoslavia?" asked one Arab writer well known for his wild conspiracy theories. "I will tell you why: because he doesn't want to bring to an end the sport of no winners, no is all a game."

The theory has become a favourite topic for discussion in the cafes of the Middle East, where many people believe America needs the likes of the Yugoslav despot Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein to further its own ends. Inevitably journalists more in the US than the UK - have made comparisons between the two dictators who have been demonised by the West. Evidence of collusion between Baghdad and Belgrade - based on leaked information from UN, American and British officials - is of further concern to Washington.

On 25 March, a former member of the American delegation to the United Nations who opposes the US line on Yugoslavia and Iraq, alerted journalists to a UN-approved deal that gave Mr Milosevic an economic weapon, by allowing him to do business with Saddam Hussein.

Backed by UN documents, the official explained how commerce between the two pariah states, including trading in wheat and snakebite serum, has been carried out under the UN oil-for-food programme, which allows Iraq to sell a limited amount of oil and use part of the proceeds to buy food and medicines.

Without any objection from the US, four Yugoslav sales to Iraq have been approved since Milosevic stepped up the repression in Kosovo, the official told The Middle East. The deals went to Jugoimport-SDPR, a state-owned company, founded in 1949, dealing primarily in arms and headed for 10 years by Major-General Jovan Cekovic, who has been scouring the Middle East, including Iraq and Iran, for customers for Yugoslav armaments, including land mines and tanks. Libya has been a customer, according to Western intelligence sources.

The contract is worth only $22 million, but this represents a significant sum in the hard currency Mr Milosevic has had a hard time obtaining because of the economic sanctions. "We hoped sales would reach $150 million this year," a Yugoslav official told The Middle East.

Mr Milosevic is expected to buy Iraqi oil to power the Yugoslav military machine, American and United Nations officials agreed.

At the time of approving the latest Yugoslav sale in February, the US blocked $92 million worth of sales by French companies to Iraq, a UN official said.

Under the terms of the oil-for-food programme, all sales to Iraq must be approved by a special Security Council committee, of which the US is a member and could have pushed to block the sales. "Any member of the committee can put on hold or block any contract it likes for any reason," said John Mills, a spokesman for the oil-for-food programme.

In the absence of a coherent explanation from Washington as to why the deal was allowed, the Middle East rumour-mill spin was that Washington was deliberately attempting to expose Saddam and Milosevic as members of the same gang.

Iraq bought air defence systems, including surface to air missiles, from Yugoslavia in the 1980s during the war with Iran, and Serb experts continue to receive data on systems performance during US airstrikes, American and British officials claimed.

When Major-General Cekovic visited Baghdad to discuss bilateral ties with Iraq's Vice-President Taha Yassin Ramadan on 28 February, he was accompanied by a four-member Yugoslav air defence team, "to learn tactics on how to down allied aircraft," according to General Sir Charles Guthrie, chief of the British Defence Staff. "We have seen some of the tactics put into practice already over Serbia," he said.

One Pentagon official told The Middle East that Iraq and Yugoslavia "have displayed similar tactics" during US-led air operations. The crash in Yugoslavia of a US F-117A stealth fighter on 27 March - believed by many to have been shot down - has been taken as a signal that Yugoslavia has improved its knowledge of US air combat tactics which will, inevitably, benefit Iraq.

Mr Milosevic seems to have taken a leaf out of President Saddam Hussein's strategy book in calling the NATO bluff. If Saddam, who lost most of his armour during the massive 16-nation joint ground offensive in February 1991, still has an unshakeable grip on power eight years later, why should President Milosevic be worried when NATO leaders publicly ruled out the use of ground troops at the start of the campaign?

By speaking out, "They [NATO leaders] gave Mr Milosevic a great advantage," said former British Prime Minister John Major. "At least they could have kept quiet about it."

Like President Hussein's move against the Kurds in the north and the Shia in the south in 1991, once he had established no allied troops would be deployed inside Iraq, Milosevic moved swiftly to ethnically cleanse Kosovo. The shock ripples are already turning into bigger waves on the southern shores of the Mediterranean.

Glued to their television screens, Israelis and Palestinians were, for once, united as they watched with empathy what both groups, in different ways, see as a late 20th-century replay of their own ethnic horror. For the Israelis events mirror the Holocaust, and for the Palestinians Al-Nakbah, the flight into exile in 1948, when the Jewish state was founded. Both also watch with anxiety as NATO deploys the world's largest force, possibly to alter some historic gains. Could it be a rehearsal for events to unfold in the Balkans of the Middle East?

Many Palestinians and Israelis have felt personally compelled to help. The Israelis set up a field hospital in Macedonia, and the Jewish Agency sent three plane loads of aid to Albania. Even in the relief efforts, Middle East politics is played big. When the first small Israeli plane landed in Albania, it was immediately outshone by a Saudi Arabian jumbo jet filled with blankets and carpets. The Israelis were made to feel the measure of their small country's effort, which they quickly pointed out could never compare in size but was a genuine and heartfelt grassroots response to the suffering.

The Israeli statement was warmly applauded by the Palestinians, who are used to handouts from the rest of the world; they too organised their own relief efforts and sent aid to the Kosovars.

Israel's right-wing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu drew criticism internally and internationally for refusing to condemn Serbia's ethnic cleansing at the start. The hawkish Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, partly hoping to woo the Russians and partly because of his admiration for the Serbs, refused to back NATO action, which was welcomed by the Yugoslav ambassador as a sign of neutrality.

On 7 April Sharon, speaking in New York, warned that the NATO campaign could lead to an independent Kosovo which, he claimed "would join Albania and create a large pool of Islamic fundamentalists." Distancing himself from his foreign minister, Netanyahu quickly said he was expressing private views not government policy. But both men, Jerusalem-based diplomats say, play to the right-wing constituency, which opposes the NATO attack on Serbia.

While the Serbian-Israeli Friendship Group is citing Serbia's opposition to Hitler during the second world war as heroic, hard core right-wing Israelis respect what they see as the Serbs' historic right to Kosovo "their Jerusalem" - and resent what they regard as the pro-Muslim world news media. "We will be alert and attentive to what is happening in Kosovo, as it may be a general rehearsal for what could happen here if we don't give the Palestinian terrorists a state with Jerusalem as its capital," said Elyakim Haetzni, a lawyer, in an opinion piece last month for Channel 7, the radio station of the Jewish settler movement.

The influential Israeli arms industry, which, is fighting for survival in a shrinking market, also supports Serbia. Since most of the Serbian army is equipped with Russian-made weapons, with which the Israelis are familiar, this stand seems to be based on potential business opportunity. Serbia also has some T-60 tanks in need of updating. The Serbian government, through a senior Israeli diplomat, has presented its shopping list of military equipment, medicines and credit.

Military ties between the Israelis and the Milosevic government started in 1992 when a delegation from the Israeli Defence Ministry signed a deal in Belgrade to supply a large quantity of shells.

Early this year the Serbs asked Israel to upgrade some MiG 21 fighters by modernising their electronics and weapons. But Israeli avionics experts said the MiGs were too old for renovation and suggested the Serbs buy new models. Although all contacts were made through private businessmen, Netanyahu has intervened and instructed Israeli middlemen not to conclude any aircraft deal until the crisis is over. Jerusalem-based diplomats say he wanted to avoid antagonising NATO, Muslims next door in Lebanon where Iran has great influence, and Palestinians in self-rule areas who, like Syria, prefer Russia to the West.

Russia's solidarity with Belgrade could undermine its standing among Muslims - with the exception of Iraq and Libya who have condemned the NATO airstrikes as "illegitimate because they are done outside the United Nations charter".

Iran, which is sending aid to help refugees, and has spoken out on a national level as well as being current chair of the 55-member Organisation of the Islamic Conference, also opposes NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia.

Teheran agreed with Russia that the crisis could be solved only by political means, and has asked Moscow to exert influence on Belgrade urging respect for the rights of the ethnic Albanians.

Moscow's relations with Teheran could suffer a setback as a result of Russia's failure to acknowledge the plight of the Kosovars at the hands of Serbian security forces.

The NATO attack which is, in principle, to aid Kosovar Muslims, did not improve the West's reputation in the largely Islamic Middle East - with the exception of the United Arab Emirates, which said the NATO military intervention in Yugoslavia was "the only way capable of putting an end to the tragedy in Kosovo".

Traditionally anti-American Islamists watched the fate of their fellow Muslims with mounting anger. The saying "my enemy's enemy is my best ally" has a hollow ring in the shifting sand of Middle East politics: what do you do when both are classed as cursed enemies?

Lebanon's pro-Iranian Hizbullah on 31 March condemned the massacres by Serbs, but said the NATO air attacks were aimed at protecting US regional interests. Islamists were, as we went to print, still looking for some clear guidance from their leaders; chiefly whether it would be a true "Jihad" to fight under the flag of the "Great Satan" - as the US was labelled by the late Ayatollah Khomeini 20 years ago?

Such a stigma did not stop Islamists fighting against Soviet troops in Afghanistan, as a Russian diplomat wryly observed. Pro-Iranian Islamists have long claimed that the Afghan Mujahedin were Saudi-American financed.

Thus the next move by Iran and its radical Islamic allies - both of whom played a key role in bringing an end to the Bosnia conflict - is yet to be seen. They have publicly welcomed any support for the Muslims in Kosovo and are ready for a re-run of the Bosnia scenario, when they sent arms, money and volunteers to help the Bosnian Muslims.

Concerns about outside Islamist influence are adding to fears in countries like Macedonia that alterations to the ethnic mix, brought about by the influx of Muslim ethnic Albanians, will lead to conflict such as that experienced in Lebanon, where the presence of Palestinian refugees helped spark civil war.

On 6 April Macedonian troops ethnically cleansed their border by brutally forcing thousands of Kosovar refugees from their makeshift camps into Albania. The move was condemned by various Islamic groups in the Middle East, each mumbling words advocating revenge.

Meanwhile Kosovar and Albanian Muslims are gaining public sympathy in Turkey. There has been not a single objection in the Turkish parliament to endorsing the participation of the Turkish airforce and even ground troops if needed against Yugoslavia. Good news for NATO? No, say diplomats based in Ankara; the last thing the Turkish government wants is to rally the nation behind fighting an Islamic war.

"NATO does not want to draw attention to the religious dimension of the conflict and so inflame the situation," one NATO ambassador told The Middle East. But he expects further moves by Islamic militants from the Middle East to join the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

There are already hundreds, maybe a couple of thousand, Islamic fundamentalists in Albania who have arrived over the past three years via Yemen, Sudan and Pakistan. Last year the Albanian authorities deported four Egyptian nationals to stand trial in Egypt for their association with Gama't Islamiyat, the terrorist group that killed tourists in Luxor. The four, who stayed in Albania on Yemeni, Sudanese and Saudi Arabian passports, provided valuable information about the leaders of the Islamic Groups: Dr Iyman el-Zwahri - wanted by Egypt and three other governments for conspiracy to murder and organise terrorist acts - and Osama bin Laden, the Saudi millionaire suspected of masterminding the bombing of American embassies in Africa. Both men have a sizeable following in Albania where Mr bin Laden has large investments. Although some of the former Afghan fighters helped tip the balance in favour of Bosnia before NATO intervention in 1992, diplomats fear that Islamic extremists based in the Balkans would, inevitably, turn on NATO forces.
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Title Annotation:25th Anniversary Issue
Comment:The war raging in Kosovo, Yugoslavia, will have a direct impact on the Middle East once Islamic radicals get involved in the war.
Author:Darwish, Adel
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:4EXYU
Date:May 1, 1999
Previous Article:The Garden of Habustan.
Next Article:Breaking the circle of dependence.

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