Iraq War Provides Opportunity for US to Reshape Mideast

The United States has always taken the Middle East as a region of vital strategic interests as it has to secure the safe supply of oil and look after its ally Israel.

Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, the region has become a crucial battle ground in the US-led war against terror where Washington believes it has to take decisive measures to deal with rising Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism.

Meanwhile, the Middle East, which boasts a bulky portion of the world's crude oil reserves, gains further prominence in the US national security strategy as Washington seeks to build a unipolar world order in a post-cold war era.

For US neo-conservatists, who believe that power is the only currency of foreign policy, the Iraq war has created double effects -- the removal of a hostile regime led by President Saddam Hussein and the so-called "demonstration effect" of a military success.

While major combat operations ended in Iraq, as President George W. Bush announced on Thursday, the United States is seizing the momentum to revamp its Middle East policies in the interests of its geopolitical and global strategic needs, analysts say.

REBUILDING IRAQ INTO A NEW STRATEGIC ALLY

As a regional power, Iraq is located in the geographic center of the Middle East and boasts the world's second largest crude oil reserves. If Washington controls Iraq, it will produce a radiating effect throughout the region.

Analysts here believe that a postwar Iraq could follow Israel and Turkey to become the United States' third strategic ally in the Middle East. Privately, Pentagon officials have confessed to US media that Iraq is the most ideal place for permanent US military bases in the region.

Therefore, rebuilding Iraq and turning it into a new strategic US ally will be a major pursuit of US Middle East policy in the aftermath of the Iraq war.

For the moment, the Bush administration is moving quickly to install an interim Iraq authority and resume oil production while denying the United Nations any essential role in the postwar rebuilding of Iraq and in the hunt for Baghdad's alleged weapons of mass destruction, which the United States used as a pretext to wage war.

MIDEAST CONFLICT: OPPORTUNITY AND CHALLENGE

The Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack in New York and Washington had triggered criticism on Washington's biased Middle East policy in favor of Israel. Critics urged the Bush administration to assume a more active role in helping solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which has fueled widespread anti-American sentiment in the Arab world.

The hardliners in Washington, however, blame the Palestinians and President Saddam's government for the stalemate in the Middle East peace process, pressing for a change in Palestinian leadership and a regime change in Baghdad.

Analysts here believe that the removal of President Saddam from power and the confirmation of Palestinian new Prime Minister Mahoud Abbas have deprived the administration of any excuse for further delay and even provides "an unprecedented opportunity" for Washington's engagement in reviving the Middle East peace process.

Without the usual fanfare, President Bush on Wednesday unveiled the much-awaited, long-delayed Middle East roadmap peace plan, urging Israelis and the Palestinians to return to a "path of peace" and dispatching US Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region.

However, the Israeli government led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has not only managed to delay the release of the "roadmap" but also repeatedly demanded its revision.

Echoing Israel's demand, hundreds of US lawmakers recently sent a signed appeal to President Bush, urging him not to press Israel to make concessions until a complete halt of Palestinian violence.

Analysts here strongly believe that President Bush, who claims himself to be a Sharon admirer and never hesitates to appease US conservatives, will have to overcome opposition from hardliners in Israel and his own electorate so as reach the end of the "roadmap."

The roadmap, developed by the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, lays out steps leading to the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

RESHAPING MIDDLE EAST THROUGH "DEMOCRATIZATION"

The Iraq war avails the United States of an opportunity to reshape the geopolitical alignment in the Middle East in favor of its own strategic interests, analysts say.

Firstly, the Bush administration will seize the momentum of the Iraq war to promote "democracy" in the region, which US neo-conservatives have touted as the only way for the United States to root up terrorism.

President Bush endorsed the strategy in February in a speech at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, and used it to justify his push for a war with Iraq, saying that a democratic Iraq will serve as an example like Israel and Turkey in the Arab world.

Secondly, removing threats from a hostile Iraq, the United States will begin to adjust its relationships with some Arab countries according to the new geopolitical reality in the region.

During a trip to the Middle East earlier this week, for example, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced that the United States is withdrawing all its troops from Saudi Arabia and will relocate its command center in the Gulf from Saudi Arabia to Qatar.

Analysts believe that the downfall of Saddam's regime has decreased the strategic importance of both Saudi Arabia and Egypt to the United States. Meanwhile, Qatar and Kuwait's support for the Iraq war may serve as a plus to their relationships with Washington.

Thirdly, Syria and Iran, widely believed to be candidates for the next targets of US preemptive strike, may replace Iraq to become the major US concerns in the region.

Wary of the so-called "Syria-Iraq-Iran axis," US Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz has hailed the end of Ba'ath Party rule in Iraq as an "enormously important event."

In a recent interview with The Washington Times, a mouthpiece of US conservatives, Wolfowitz accused Syria and Iran of being "state sponsors of terrorism" and specifically mentioned them as places where political reform is needed.

But analysts believe that Washington has its hands full in Iraq and the possibility to launch attacks on Syria or Iran is very slim, at least in the near term. Rather, as US officials said, it would prefer to scare them into changing behavior.



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