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How Islamic Holy Days Could Affect The Gulf War

PRESIDENT Bush has informed us that Operation Desert Storm is running according to schedule, but he neglected to tell us when we will reach our destination. Official pronouncements during last fall's debate over deadlines indicate that anticipated schedule. Pentagon statements made reference to the the onset of hot weather in spring, which might hamper the functioning of military personnel and machines.

They also mentioned, in a Pentagon' bureaucrat's awkward phrase, ``a succession of Islamic holy days.'' This doubtless referred to Ramadan, the month of fasting, which will begin with the new moon on or about March 16.

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During Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunup to sundown. In quiet times, they pass the evening in visits to family and friends, and the consumption of specially prepared dishes. Children play joyfully in the street well past their usual bedtimes.

Another tradition of Ramadan is the conduct of tafsir, of commentary on religious texts, in the mosques. In times of trouble, tafsir sessions become a major focus of community life during Ramadan. Through tafsir, Muslims turn to their religious foundations for guidance in current dilemmas.

For instance, in the early phase of the Algerian revolution, in 1955, tafsir sessions were used to rally people against French colonial rule. Tafsir has been a major vehicle for promotion of the Islamic revival since the 1970s.

THIS Ramadan, the chief subject of tafsir will surely be the war in the Gulf. It will often be noted that the purpose of fasting, as put in the Koran (Sura II, Verse 183) is to promote a sense of self-restraint, of mercy and compassion. In fasting, one learns to control one's hunger and thirst, and one is reminded of the hardships of the poor.

Some criticism will be aimed at Iraq for its aggression against Kuwait, but much tafsir commentary is likely to be aimed against Saudi Arabia for bringing a massive military onslaught against Iraq, and rejecting Iraqi terms for a negotiating framework. A Saudi government cleric's pronouncement that the war against Iraq is jihad will be greeted with, at best, puzzlement.

The Saudi monarchy has long cultivated links with Islamic movements from the Maghreb to Southeast Asia, subsidizing educational and charitable activities, and, at least indirectly, the political movements that have grown out of these. However, as the war drags on, as Iraq takes on more of a martyr image, the rank and file of Islamic movements may become seriously troubled about Saudi Arabia's role in the Gulf. Algeria provides an example: The Islamic Salvation Front, despite its past links with the Saudis, has turned against them due to a groundswell of popular sympathy for Iraq.

The Saudis might be able to avert criticism if the war has ended decisively before mid-March. They would be able to take the stand of magnanimous, merciful victors, offering to aid in the reconstruction of Iraq. They could thus claim to be working in the spirit of Ramadan.

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However, if the war has not ended by mid-March, the call for a negotiated peace, already heard from countries such as Jordan, Yemen, Algeria, and Iran, is likely to become more widespread and more insistent.

The anti-Iraq coalition may thus have to come to grips with a choice: either to push for an unqualified military triumph before mid-March, keeping to the schedule, whatever the costs, or to settle for an alternative destination - a cease-fire and a negotiated peace.

Otherwise another crisis will loom by mid-June: the haji, when hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from around the world will converge on Mecca.

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