Wednesday, August 02, 2006

In L.A. talk, Blair gives warning to Syria, Iran

Peter Hecht, Sacramento Bee:
Delivering a major international policy address in California, British Prime Minister Tony Blair issued a stern warning Tuesday that Syria and Iran will face serious consequences if they continue working to destabilize the Middle East. Without saying the two nations could face military action, Blair said: "We need to make it clear to Syria and Iran that there is a choice: Come into the international community and play by the same rules as the rest of us -- or be confronted.

"Their support of terrorism, their deliberate export of instability, their desire to see wrecked the democratic prospect in Iraq is utterly unjustifiable, dangerous and wrong," the prime minister said in a speech to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council. "If they keep raising the stakes, they will find they have miscalculated." READ MORE

Meanwhile, Blair heaped blame on Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon and other Islamic extremists, saying their incursions into Israel were part of a calculated campaign to provoke a massive Israeli military response.

The idea, Blair said, was to leave the world with images of gutted Lebanese cities to stir outrage -- thus drowning out moderate Muslim voices and exploiting the tragedy to spread an "arc of extremism" across the Middle East.

"The purpose of the provocation that began the conflict was clear," Blair said of Hezbollah guerrillas crossing the border from Lebanon and kidnapping two Israeli soldiers. Another eight Israeli soldiers were killed in an ensuing battle.

"It was to create chaos, division and bloodshed, to provoke retaliation by Israel that would lead to Arab and Muslim opinion being inflamed, not against those who started the aggression but against those who responded to it."

With warfare and sectarian violence stretching from Afghanistan to Lebanon to Iraq, Blair said the Middle East faces a critical clash of political and religious values pitting "reactionary Islam and moderate, mainstream Islam."

He said the region's future stability will depend on supporting and empowering moderate Muslims who shun violence and strive for democratic values. But he warned that now, "instead of Muslims seeing this (struggle) as about democracy vs. dictatorship, they see only the bombs and brutality of war, and sent from Israel."

The crisis in Lebanon, more than 3 weeks old, has caused more than 800,000 Lebanese to flee their neighborhoods and 100,000 are still believed trapped in combat zones, United Nations relief officials have reported.

Blair said the television images of gutted buildings and wounded, dead and terrified citizens in southern Lebanon were exactly what Hezbollah wanted to provoke for the world to see.

"The opportunity passed to reactionary Islam and they seized it, first in Gaza, then in Lebanon," Blair said. "They want to trap the moderates between support for America and an 'Arab street' furious at what they see nightly on their television. And that is what has happened."

Blair, after arriving for his U.S. tour, held a 90-minute meeting Friday with President Bush, in which the two leaders announced they would submit a plan to end the hostilities between Israel and Lebanon.

They publicly endorsed the concept of an international peacekeeping force between Israeli troops and Hezbollah guerrillas. Meanwhile, they said the Lebanese military was to move into the southern region of the country controlled by Hezbollah.

On Tuesday, Blair said it's critical that militias be disarmed and the fragile democratic "government of Lebanon is given authority over the whole of Lebanon."

Israel, hoping to drive Hezbollah far from the border and end its ability to launch missiles into the Jewish state, has shown little interest in pulling back from its military campaign.

Blair said he has been shocked by the carnage he's seen on television from Lebanon, where Israeli bombs and missiles targeting Hezbollah have mostly killed hundreds of innocent civilians, including women and children.

"I, and any halfway sentient human being, regards the loss of civilian life in Lebanon as unacceptable, grieves for that nation, is sickened by its plight and wants the war to stop now," Blair said.

But he said Israel couldn't stand idle as its soldiers were kidnapped over the borders of Lebanon and Gaza and Hezbollah rained "rockets indiscriminately at the civilian population in northern Israel."

Blair also assailed Iran for enabling war and bloodshed in Lebanon and Israel by providing financing and weapons to Hezbollah guerillas in Lebanon and Hamas militants in Gaza.

"Iran's president has called for Israel … to be 'wiped off the map,' " Blair said. "And he is trying to acquire a nuclear weapon. … Israel's main neighbor on its eastern flank is Syria, who support Hezbollah and house the hard-line leaders of Hamas.

"It's not exactly a situation that is conducive to a feeling of security, is it?"