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The cure will be far worse than the disease

Andy Gregg on how war against Iraq will play into Bin Laden's hands

Ask yourself one question - if Osama Bin Laden is still alive, what would he hope the US and the British will do? The answer is that he would like nothing more than a US invasion of Iraq as soon as possible with or without the support of the UN (and indeed preferably with the support of the local Arab states that he has spent so long trying to bring down).Nothing will consolidate support for his appalling project quicker or more effectively amongst ordinary Muslims in and beyond the Middle East. Simple logic ought to tell Tony Blair that a movement that is fuelled by "martyrs" will only gain from the many thousands of bereaved families that any attack on Iraq is bound to cause.

Bush and Blair are not making war on terror. Terror is a tactic -an approach to struggle - not even Bush "the Global Village Idiot" can make war on a tactic. One might as well make war on humour. Instead of being a war against AlQaida's terrorism, an invasion of Iraq will be a dangerous distraction from it. Worse than this, its will play straight into Bin Laden's hands. Any attempt to counter the new form of martyr-terrorism that itself creates more martyrs is worse than self- defeating - it is positively suicidal.

The most insidious characteristic of martyr-terrorism is that it actively seeks to get its opponents to lash out wildly and promote yet more hatred. Ultimately it expects to be able to prod the West into a full scale Middle East war and thus assist it in its own project to destabilise local regimes and gain new supporters for its bloody jihad.

One of the most fatuous arguments put forward recently in the US (and sadly increasingly by some in the UK) is that the AlQaida network is directly related to Saddam. For many years Al Qaida and other extremist Islamic groups have sought to bring down the secular Baathist regimes of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Assad in Syria. Conversely, at the end of the Gulf war during the Shia uprisings against Saddam in southern Iraq, the Iraqi Government forces and secret police assassinated or tortured anyone who was seen as an islamist - indeed almost anyone who wore a beard. Saddam has been conducting a ruthless struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood and its more extreme counterparts such as AlQaida for rather longer than have the UK and the US.

Nevertheless the US in its myopic ignorance is all too willing to believe in the false argument that because they have two enemies, those enemies must be friends with each other. Ironically, the US is about to act in such a way that it might just force them to become so. Of course Saddam is an evil dictator and no one should minimise the appalling breaches of human rights, the torture, arbitrary executions and everyday violence that characterises his regime. Yes Saddam is a bastard. The problem is that until fairly recently he was "our bastard". Supported and armed by the West as a bulwark against the Iranians, feted at arms conferences and excused by the Western powers for many of the outrages (such as the chemical attack on the Kurds) that only now surface in their ritual denunciations that are designed to urge us to support war.

Another insidious characteristic of Bin Laden's form of terrorism is that it occupies a strange symbiotic relationship with the other religious fundamentalisms that claim to be most opposed to it. The rhetoric of a war between civilisations is becoming increasingly shared between Christian, Jewish and Muslim extremists (and indeed Hindu fanatics after the recent troubles in Kashmir and Gujerat). Jihads and crusades are all too similar.To countenance a war on Iraq without a more concerted attempt to restrain Israel and promote a just settlement between Israel and Palestine will be a hugely dangerous and inflammatory undertaking (see Ahmed Rashid, Taliban).

Of course Islamic extremists do not want such a settlement. Many Christian fundamentalists in the US alongside the neo-conservatives in Bush's Government clearly don't want one either. Nor do the extremists in the Israeli Government or the settlers in the Occupied Territories. Jewish fundamentalism and the settlers movement needs Hamas and Islamic Jihad and vice versa. This is why whenever there is a small movement towards any kind of talks on Palestine, either Sharon assassinates a Hamas leader or conducts a military incursion into Palestinian neighbourhoods or young Palestinian men and women are dispatched to blow themselves up in Israeli townships. Christian and Zionist fundamentalism will be as much to blame for the conflagration that is likely to sweep the Middle East as the fanaticism of Osama Bin Laden.

It has been estimated that as many as 40 million Christian fundamentalists in the US seriously believe that a war on Iraq and the consolidation of Judeah and Samareah (the WestBank and Gaza) into a Greater Israel is an immediate precursor to the coming of the Antichrist to be followed by the day of judgement and the second coming of Christ as foretold in St John of the Revelations. Books putting forward this bizarre theory are piled high in every WalMart store in the US. This is Bush's natural constituency and he is unlikely to face them down whatever Tony Blair may say.

Over the last few months Al Qaida has gained appreciably more support for itself in the Arab and Muslim world because of its recent attacks on specifically Israeli targets in Mombasa. Whether or not Osama is still alive, the decision to focus more on Israeli and jewish targets shows the increasing influence of the senior Al Qaida chief Ayman al Zawahiri. Zawahiri, who has been described as Osama Bin Laden's mentor, has long been urging Al Qaida to focus more on the central question of Palestine rather than the issues Bin Ladin has hitherto pushed - US troops in Saudi Arabia and the defence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Zawahiri was the leader of the banned Egyptian Islamic Jihad and has been described as "knowing more about both Islam and the modern world" than Osama himself (Rashid) .

So far there is no evidence that Al Qaida has developed extensive contacts with Hamas and some of the other Palestinian terrorist groups, let alone with Saddam. This is likely to change significantly in the event of a new Gulf War and the increasing influence of Ayman al Zawahiri on the Al Qaida network. Yet again the West is set to reap a whirlwind in the Middle East that is entirely of its own making.

The more Bush and Blair's irresponsible war-mongering has continued, the more extraordinary hypocrisies have surfaced. There has been no serious attempt to curtail the activities of the only local state that actually is known to have nuclear biological and chemical weapons - Israel. A move towards a two state solution in Israel and Palestine might have been the only way that Bush and Blair could have mitigated the appalling consequences for World opinion and Muslim outrage that will result from an attack on Iraq. To contemplate a full scale attack on Iraq without any move to solve the problems in the Palestinian territories is a quite extraordinarily stupid approach. But of course the Christian fundamentalists in alliance with the pro Israeli lobby in the US would not contemplate this and Bush naturally fell in with them (followed shortly afterwards by his British poodles).

The constant harping on about Saddam's use of poison gas both in the first Gulf War and against the Kurds at Halabja forgets not only that the West did nothing about these incidents at the time they happened, and that the West sold him most of the precursor chemicals necessary to make the things in the first place. The US knew he was building them to use against the Iranians. But it also forgets perhaps the greatest hypocrisy of all - that the first people to use poison gas in the region were the British during and after the First World War whilst they were setting up the unstable and corrupt oligarchies that are still so much a part of the problem today.

The more the US and the UK collude with Sharon, the more we excuse the disgraceful abuses of Putin and the Russians in Chechnya, the more we are seen to confront Muslim states but fail to restrain Israel, the more we will be hated throughout the world. Islam already sees itself as under world-wide attack and its historic response to this is jihad. Whether or not the UN is involved in a war on Iraq with the support of a few Arab states will make little difference. The hatred felt for the double standards of the US and its supporters has already festered for so long that it is over-ripe to explode.

Such an explosion is very likely to follow an invasion of Iraq and it would probably achieve many of the things that Bin Laden would like. The toppling of a number of corrupt Middle Eastern regimes - possibly even Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the increased radicalisation of the Muslim masses, increased support for suicide-bombers and other "martyrs", growing threats to the West's trade and oil supplies. At the worst, nuclear war if Israel is attacked with scud missiles. At the best, world recession leading to increasing poverty in the South and the growing desperation of those confronted daily on their televisions with the vast and unobtainable wealth and waste of the rich.

Blair is leading us into a growing cycle of poverty, fear and terror because he is afraid to stand up to a US administration dominated by war-mongering fanatics. Only real leadership can extract us from this desperate situation. The real lines of battle are the fundamentalists of any persuasion against the rest. Blair will not be forgiven if he sides with the fanatics.

Andy Gregg is Director of World University Services