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Al Qaeda taps Arab war fears

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"Osama bin Laden's initial goal in the early '90s was to rid 'the land of the two holy sanctuaries' (Saudi Arabia) of all US troops," he says.

A reader poll on the Web page of the Qatar-based Al Jazeera cable network this past weekend asked in Arabic if readers supported Al Qaeda's message that US forces should leave the Gulf area. Of nearly 60,000 respondents, 87 percent said that they endorsed the view. Though the poll was unscientific, analysts say they are concerned that so many Arabs would even respond to a question posed in the name of a terror group.

Al Qaeda's new audio recordings, released on Arab websites this month, warn that President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair are waging a campaign to carve up the Middle East in a fashion similar to a 1916 British-French pact that divided the remnants of the Ottoman Empire.

The speaker on the tapes, believed by CIA analysts to be bin Laden, warns that the US troop buildup in the Gulf "for an attack on Iraq is only a link in the chain of continuing attacks on the countries of this region, including Egypt, Syria, Iran, and Sudan." "However," the speaker continues, "their real intention is to conquer and divide the land of the two holy sanctuaries, as they have long realized the strategic value of this target, ever since this objective was passed on from Britain to the United States 60 years ago."

The voice insists that the "United States' goal to divide and conquer the Middle East is not just a passing fancy."

Most Syrians, like other Arabs who had troubled 19th- and 20th-century ties with the British and French, view Western promises with a wary eye. During WWI, for example, the British backed Syria's Emir Faisal and promised him pan-Arab independence. The Syrians were disappointed, however, when the British, carving up the spoils of war, handed their country over to the French.

Fears of falling yet again under the Western yoke resound through Arab popular sentiment as a possible US-led invasion of Iraq looms. "George W. Bush is an evil man," says Mohammed Khatit, a Damascus schoolteacher. "He wants to control the world and no one can stop him, but we have to do something."

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