Six months after September 11: Inflammable material in world politics

Speaking at a White House ceremony on March 11, exactly six months after the devastating attacks on New York and Washington, George Bush addressed an audience of 1,300 dignitaries, including 100 ambassadors in Washington. He did not mention Iraq by name, but left no doubt he was determined to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Bush is said to have mapped out a "global strategy" against the enemies of America. It even goes by the name of "the Bush Doctrine." But in reality there is no such strategy. Bush's policy consists in lashing out blindly, making use of America's overwhelming military strength to intimidate and compel the rest of the world to do America's bidding.

"Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad."

Speaking at a White House ceremony on March 11, exactly six months after the devastating attacks on New York and Washington, George Bush addressed an audience of 1,300 dignitaries, including 100 ambassadors in Washington. He did not mention Iraq by name, but left no doubt he was determined to overthrow Saddam Hussein. To the strains of the Star Spangled Banner and with tears in his eyes, the American President vowed to wage an unrelenting war against terrorism and the states that sponsored it yesterday, and called on the rest of the "civilised world" to join him.

The US Marine corps has a motto: "Speak softly and carry a big stick." Under George W. Bush, it seems that America intends to carry a big stick and not bother too much about speaking softly. Taking advantage of the anniversary of the bloody events of last September to keep up the momentum of his "war against terrorism", Bush warned that unnamed states that sponsored terrorism were seeking weapons of mass destruction and terrorist groups hungry for these weapons "would use them without a hint of conscience". The anti-terror coalition had to confront these facts. "They cannot be denied. Inaction is not an option," Mr Bush said.

The President's resolve was strengthened by a new opinion poll showing Americans united behind him. A massive 88 per cent endorsed his handling of the war against terrorism, and a large majority of his countrymen supported the dispatch of US troops to carry the war into other countries. More than three quarters of respondents were confident America would not be bogged down in another unwinnable Vietnam.

However, even as Mr Bush was speaking, the 10-day battle of Shah-i-kot, the bloodiest of the ground war so far in Afghanistan, was still continuing, and the first American casualties were being mourned. The first - but not the last. Bush warned: "Shah-i-kot won't be the last battle in Afghanistan, and there will be other battles beyond Afghanistan."

Every terrorist, he said, "must be made to live as an international fugitive with no place to hide, no government to hide behind and not even a safe place to sleep". The US expected every country to "remove the terrorist parasites that threaten their own countries and the peace of the world". If friendly governments needed help America would provide resources, he promised, citing the Philippines, Georgia and Yemen.

The mission, Mr Bush declared, would only end "when the work is finished", when terror networks of global reach have been destroyed - "and they will be destroyed".

The intention was quite clear: to prepare public opinion in the USA and internationally for new acts of military aggression and more deaths. In contrast to the recent go-it-alone approach in Washington, Mr Bush went out of his way to stress the importance of the international alliance against terrorism. He praised some 20 countries, and referred repeatedly to the "community of civilised nations" engaged in a common struggle.

America overreaches itself

President Truman - who was a more serious representative of US imperialism than little George Bush - once said that war was too serious to be left to the generals. One might add nowadays that it is also too serious to be left to American Presidents.

The very way in which Bush poses the question of war lacks any military or political logic. The so-called war against terrorism is not a normal war. There is no clearly defined enemy, or front line. The issues involved are not the old clear questions concerning territory, markets and spheres of influence, which made it possible to enter a conflict with a clear plan of action and well-defined war aims.

Bush is said to have mapped out a "global strategy" against the enemies of America. It even goes by the name of "the Bush Doctrine." But in reality there is no such strategy. Bush's policy consists in lashing out blindly, making use of America's overwhelming military strength to intimidate and compel the rest of the world to do America's bidding. He has allowed the temporary success in Afghanistan to go to his head. He now imagines that America can intervene in any part of the globe with no restraint or limitation. This is extremely ironical if we recall that twelve months ago George Bush was an ardent isolationist!

It was already unprecedented last September that Bush should have declared war against an unnamed enemy - a war against nobody in particular and everybody in general who in some vague way was perceived to represent some kind of threat to American interests. Such a policy has the advantage of giving the White House and the Pentagon a free hand to take military action against almost anyone. But it also exposes the USA to serious risks.

Bush has apparently decided that it is time for America to "go nuclear." This week the Los Angeles Times reported that the President had ordered the Pentagon to draw up contingency plans for the use of nuclear weapons and a list of seven nations for targeting: Five - North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Libya and Syria - are either terror sponsors or developers of weapons of mass destruction. Russia and China were also included in the list of potential targets! This is an excellent advertisement for western Christian civilisation, which, as everybody knows, is based on the commandment: "Blessed are the peacemakers."

One of these peacemakers, American deputy secretary of state for disarmament, John Bolton, on February 21 stated that Washington had decided to depart from its traditional policy of nuclear non-use against non-nuclear powers. The exceptions would be made in the cases of terrorists, their sponsors and states developing weapons of mass destruction. Bolton's statement was received in Baghdad as a sign that the United States has decided to use nuclear weapons in its coming offensive, and Saddam Hussein regime has made preparation.

According to DEBKAfile: "The US armed forces are looking harder at the development of small nuclear bombs for tactical use. Given the setbacks in Tora Bora and the Shah-e-Kot Valley - for lack of intelligence and reliable Afghan allied troops - US military planners may lean further towards the use of tactical nuclear weapons to finish off the Taliban and al Qaeda strongholds still defying conventional means of warfare."

Bush is proposing to mount a most serious escalation of US military action by attacking Iraq, at a time when the war in Afghanistan is not only not finished, but entering a new and dangerous phase. In the Balkans, there is a threat of renewed violence in Macedonia, where nothing has been resolved. The US is getting increasingly drawn into armed conflicts in the Philippines and Colombia.

Above all, in the Middle East, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is escalating out of control in a downward spiral of violence and mayhem. Any attack on Iraq will clearly aggravate all the tensions in the Middle East, which is a vital area for American interests. It would signify the immediate collapse of Bush's "anti-terror" coalition and destabilise friendly regimes like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. No wonder that behind the public display of solidarity, deep fissures are beginning to open up.

Cracks in the coalition

There is little doubt that plans are already being made for a new act of aggression against Iraq. The only question is when and how. Dick Cheney, the US Vice- President, was sent immediately to London, where he could count on a sympathetic hearing. From London, Cheney warned that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction must be dismantled before President Saddam formed an alliance with al Qaeda or other terrorist groups.

Speaking after almost two hours of talks with Tony Blair in London, Mr Cheney said: "We know that clearly, given their past track record, they [Saddam's regime] would use such weapons should they be able to acquire them. We have to be concerned about the potential marriage between a terrorist organisation like al Qaeda and those who hold or who are proliferating knowledge about weapons of mass destruction."

However, support for an American action against Iraq is by no means a foregone conclusion. In Europe, cracks are already opening up. Even Tony Blair is having some difficulties. There have been reports of threatened resignations from his cabinet if Britain is involved in such an action. It is therefore no accident that London is displaying unusual caution this time. Downing Street has publicly admitted there was still no evidence linking Iraq to the September 11 attack. Mr Blair is believed to have warned the US Vice-President that it was vital to create as wide an international coalition as possible for any action against Iraq.

Mr Cheney told a joint press conference with Mr Blair at Downing Street that if United Nations weapons inspectors were allowed back into Iraq, it would have to be "a go anywhere, anytime" inspection regime. Cheney, who will also visit 11 Middle East countries, said he would "engage in frank discussions and solicit opinion from our friends and allies". Both Mr Cheney and Mr Blair played down any link between Iraq and the Middle East after warnings that attacking Iraq could undermine efforts to revive the peace process.

The Prime Minister said: "There is a threat from Saddam Hussein and the weapons of mass destruction that he has acquired. It is not in doubt at all. The coalition that we have assembled has acted in a calm and a measured way and this will continue." However, Downing Street emphasised that no decisions were taken about military action, saying: "It is important to get away from the idea that something is imminent." Behind these words we detect an increasing unease in London with the indecent haste with which the White House is pushing for action.

The pressures on Mr Blair mounted when David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, and normally a servile supporter of the Prime Minister, joined a number of other cabinet ministers expressing doubts. He called for an "intelligent debate" about Iraq's weapons and added: "Britain has not only been a good friend [to America] but the best friend and best friends sometimes tell you what you don't want to hear." In other words: For god's sake don't plunge us into another adventure for which we are not prepared and which may blow up in our face.

Iraq in the firing-line

The excuse that Iraq represents a military threat to the USA does not stand up to the slightest examination. It is alleged that Iraq has dangerous weapons of mass destruction, chemical and bacteriological weapons and a nuclear capability. The fact that the USA possesses all these things in great abundance is never mentioned. So what Bush objects to is not the existence of these admittedly terrible weapons, but only a challenge to the US's monopoly of such things. That is the first point.

The second point is that there is absolutely no proof that Iraq actually possesses these weapons. Iraq's military potential was crippled in the Gulf War, when the "civilised" Americans engaged in a pointless slaughter of Iraqi soldiers which more than a war resembled a turkey-shoot. After that, Iraq was divided into areas policed by the Americans and British, deprived of the right to fly over its own territory and subjected to a monstrous economic blockade, which caused the death of a million Iraqi children and threw a formerly prosperous economy back to the Stone Age.

Not content with these blatant violations of Iraq's sovereignty, the victors imposed upon Baghdad the presence of foreign inspectors who investigated every nook and cranny of the country in search of the famous "weapons of mass destruction". Iraq's capacity for producing such weapons was effectively liquidated, yet they continued to interfere and harass the Iraqis until finally their patience was exhausted and the investigators were withdrawn as a prelude to a new bout of bombing.

No serious person now believes the claim that Iraq represents a serious military threat to the United States. Even former inspectors have expressed incredulity that Baghdad could have rebuilt a serious arsenal since they left the country. This is just an excuse to justify a new act of military aggression by the USA against Iraq. The Iraqis have rejected the return of UN inspectors. Naturally. This is a clear violation of their right as a sovereign state to control their own affairs. Such a demand is a provocation designed to provide the Americans with a pretext to commence hostilities. Tensions are rising by the day. At any time, the offensive can begin.

The real reason for the aggressive stance of Washington is that the US establishment is furious that after more than a decade Sadam Hussein still continues in power in Baghdad. Neither the military defeat in the Gulf War, nor the blockade, nor the subsequent bombing have had any effect. On the contrary, they have strengthened his position. The majority of Iraqis probably hate him, but they hate US imperialism even more.

It is not at all clear what action Bush intends. He seems to be testing the water, trying to gather as much support as possible before making a move. Given the poor response and above all the conflicts raging elsewhere, he may in the end have to content himself with another round of bombing. He could perhaps get away with this, since Iraq has been bombed so many times already.

However, it is obvious that little George and the clique around him are pressing for something more than this. The fact is that more than a decade after the Gulf War, they have not succeeded in achieving their aim of overthrowing Sadam Hussein. Bombing alone cannot achieve this. Therefore, they are contemplating some kind of intervention on the ground. Drunk with their success in Afghanistan, they say to each other over a few glasses of bourbon: Let's do it! Let's finish the job! As if life was as easy as that!

After the recent experience in Afghanistan Bush and the Pentagon seem to imagine that they have stumbled upon a magical recipe. After all, they did not have to send a big US army to fight on the ground. All the fighting (which was not very much anyway) was done by the Northern Alliance. If we did this in Afghanistan, they reason, why can't we do the same in Iraq?

This line of thinking (if it can be called such) leaves a number of key elements out of the equation. In Afghanistan the Americans were lucky, and luck, as Napoleon knew very well, plays a role in warfare. The Taliban regime was utterly rotted and unpopular with broad sections of the Afghan population and the Northern Alliance was armed and ready for action. In the end, they did not have to do much fighting because, in the good old Afghan tradition, the local Taliban commanders merely changed sides, convinced by rational argument - and a sufficient sum of money.

The notion that this tactic can be repeated everywhere is plain foolishness. The situation in Iraq is not the same as in pre-war Afghanistan. Washington has some illusions in the so-called Iraqi opposition. This is a joke. The Americans have already spent millions of dollars on the opposition, which has used it very judiciously - on wine, women and song. The practical results, however, have been nil.

What other forces are available? Only the Kurds. They are certainly an armed force with a fighting capacity. But in the first place they are divided among themselves. Secondly, to incite the Iraqi Kurds would cause complications with Turkey. It seems that the Americans have managed to bring the Turks into line, at least for the present, probably with offers of money and assurances that the Kurds will not be allowed to get out of control. That is, they will be allowed to attack Iraq and then stabbed in the back - a pattern which has been repeated so often in the history of the Kurdish people.

Any attempt to interfere with the independence and territorial integrity of Iraq must be condemned. This cannot be justified on the grounds of the Kurdish problem. The right of self-determination of the Kurdish people cannot be achieved by turning the Kurds into the mercenary troops of US imperialism. And in any case, the self determination of the Kurds must not be paid for by the dismemberment of Iraq by imperialism. That is a monstrous proposal, which is not in the interests either of Kurds or Iraqis.

Sadam Hussein is a monster, who has trodden underfoot the rights of both the Kurds and his own people. We stand for the overthrow of the dictator of Baghdad. But this is the task of the Iraqi people, not US imperialism, which is the worst enemy of the Iraqi people - and no friend of the Kurds.

The political and military calculations of US imperialism are deeply flawed. If there is a new attack on Iraq, the Iraqi population will undoubtedly fight the Americans and their allies with great determination. It is one thing to be against Sadam Hussein, and quite another to see one's country overrun by a foreign aggressor. Thus, if the Americans are foolish enough to risk an invasion of Iraq, they will get more than they bargained for.

Washington's dilemma

It was very stupid of the Americans to talk about a global struggle against terrorism. This commits them to an open-ended war - one that has no winnable goals and no end in sight. Thus, in Afghanistan, despite all the rhetoric, none of their declared objectives have been met. Neither Mullah Omar nor Bin Laden have been killed or captured. The Taliban and al Qaeda have retained their military capacity. And No matter how many al Qaeda cells are penetrated, it will be difficult if not impossible to be completely confident that al Qaeda has been destroyed. In other words, there are no clear criteria for victory.

As Stratfor recently commented: "This leaves Washington in a quandary. Because it cannot be certain that it has contained al Qaeda, the government must not only maintain vigilance but also keep the public in a war-fighting frame of mind. If it announces al Qaeda's defeat and al Qaeda strikes, the government's credibility will be shattered throughout the world. Because Washington does not believe that al Qaeda has been broken - and because it does not want its public to relax - it constantly generates threat alerts."

After the atrocity of September 11, the American public has been prepared to tolerate the military adventures abroad and even some loss of life among US troops. Bush has latched onto this and is pushing through a change in US military doctrine. After the Vietnam defeat, the Pentagon was opposed to any large-scale military mission involving the use of ground troops. But now Bush is systematically preparing US public opinion for this. In this, he has been helped by the actions of the terrorists. That was the meaning of the recent ceremony - not to mourn the dead but to soften up public opinion for new foreign adventures and wars. However, there must be a limit to how long this can go on. So far the loss of American lives in Afghanistan has been small, but that is likely to change.

The United States is preparing for more and more extreme military measures on a global scale. Washington has gone so far not only as to very publicly change its nuclear strategy but also to designate Libya, Syria, Iraq and Iran - all Islamic nations - as potential targets of nuclear attack. This will inevitably engender colossal instability everywhere.

As for al Qaeda, the Bush doctrine suits them very well. There will be no shortage of volunteers and suicide bombers. After every attack by US forces, the ground will be prepared for new acts of revenge against the USA, its citizens and its property abroad. Thus, the most effective recruiting-sergeant for the terrorists is US imperialism itself.

Afghanistan - nothing is solved

To look no further, in Afghanistan, nothing has been solved. The recent battle of Shar-i-kot showed the complete falsity of the view that the Taliban forces had been liquidated. The Financial Times (March 7, 2002) commented: "The conflict in Shar-i-kot looks likely to be longer and more costly than anyone could have thought last December, when the Taliban appeared to be routed and a new government installed in Kabul."

We pointed out from the start that America would not be able to use the predominantly Tadjik Northern Alliance to subdue the mainly Pashtun Taliban. The American plan ran into difficulties from the start: Afghan ground troops from the Northern Alliance were to have advanced on the enemy strongholds to flush them out, while US units took up ‘blocking positions' to pin down them down and prevent them slipping away. But this plan fell down when the Afghan contingents were prevented from arriving in time by heavy automatic and mortar fire and did not arrive. The moment they met with serious resistance, the Northern Alliance troops' martial spirit evaporated like water on a hot stove.

According to DEBKAfile (March 10, 2002): "One of the three Afghan commanders backed out. The US force was forced to carry the brunt of the fighting against a far larger force than was anticipated. Those units took casualties and most of its helicopter backup fleet was damaged. After the Americans brought in reinforcements and new helicopters, the weather turned and heavy blizzards hampered the advance.

"Finally, the Afghan's top commander, a Pashtun, demanded that interim prime minister Hamis Karzai send home the nearly 1000 Tadjik troops, under the command of Northern Commander Gul Haider, who were sent from Kabul to reinforce the allied effort. The Northern Alliance was not to be allowed a foothold in the south."

All this should come as no surprise to our readers. As we pointed out at the time, the Taliban forces were never actually defeated because they did not actually fight. In almost every case, the "conquered" cities and towns were handed over as a result of deals with the Northern Alliance. The real situation was revealed in an article in the London Evening Standard (January 26, 2002), which revealed the existence of a "well-equipped Taliban army" of 5,000 men and as many as 450 tanks and armoured cars. It said:

"It is scattered and hidden among villages in mountainous Ghazni province, northwest of Kandahar, the one-time stronghold of the Taliban. […] The revelation will increase fears that America and its allies - including Britain - could be forced to wage war in Afghanistan for months and even years to come."

The article continues: "They disappeared the day Kandahar fell," said a senior aide to Gul Agha Sherzai, the city's new governor: "They took with them tanks, rocket-propelled grenades, machine-guns and rifles.

"At present the Americans do not want to use force, as they are spread among the local people. But there are real fears that if there is one incident of revolt against the government it will snowball. […] Hundreds of his [bin Laden's] fighters are lying low near Afghanistan's second city, trimming their beards and speaking local languages, according to an intelligence officer."

These lines hardly create the impression that the war in Afghanistan is over. As I write, the radio is reporting that the battle of Shar-i-kot is ending, and that the Americans and their Northern Alliance allies are overrunning the enemy's positions. However, the same report states that the al Qaeda forces were fleeing into Pakistan. But this was just what was supposed not to happen.

According to the Americans, the area around Shar-i-kot was completely sealed off on all sides so that the enemy forces could not escape. As a matter of fact, it is common knowledge that Pakistan serves as a base area for the Taliban and al Qaeda forces. In all probability, bin Laden and Mullah Omar are both there. Large numbers of their troops are in Pakistani-held Kashmir.

How is this possible? Is not the government of Pakistan a member of George Bush's anti-terrorist coalition? Indeed yes! But it is well known that inside the Pakistan regime and the armed forces there are serious divisions on the question of the Afghan policy. Above all the powerful ISI - Pakistan's intelligence, which operates like a state within a state - is a good friend of the Taliban, which it helped to form at the behest of Washington.

The ISI feels betrayed by the policy of America and the government of Islamabad. They are secretly aiding the Taliban, allowing them access to Pakistan territory, money, guns and support. They will have advised the Taliban to lie low until conditions are favourable to go onto the offensive. By raising the issue of Iraq, Bush will have given them the signal they are looking for.

It is not difficult to see that the new government in Kabul is hopelessly unstable. Corrupt and riven with factional and clan disputes and personal rivalries and jealousy, it is only being propped up by the presence of foreign troops. How long can this precarious equilibrium be maintained? The country is already badly fragmented, with clashes between rival war lords, each with his own foreign backer. Law and order breaks down. This is precisely the scenario in which the Taliban took over last time.

Already in January General Gulam Nassey, the Afghan minister in charge of "peace-keeping" told the London Times (January 25, 2002): "Unless the camps are disarmed, Afghanistan could once again slip into civil war. I am ashamed to say we need men who are not Afghans. We need more than 100,000 of them."

Here is the voice of reason! "We need 100,000 American troops!" But America, in its wisdom, has sent only about 3,000 troops. And with 3,000 troops they hope to subdue a country, which the Soviet army could not do with all its might, after a decade of bloody fighting! It is sufficient to pose the question for it to answer itself.

No. Nothing has been solved in Afghanistan. At any time serious fighting can break out. The Americans will discover that all the advanced technology in the world will not help them. And when the body bags begin to arrive in sufficient numbers, the mood of the American public will change.

The Middle East

The United States is looking around all the time for new targets. It now plans to deploy up to 100 soldiers to Yemen to train local security forces and assist in Yemen's hunt for al Qaeda. Yemen, located on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, is considered a likely refuge for al Qaeda fighters fleeing Afghanistan, and the U.S. mission is designed to deny them sanctuary there. However, opposition to a U.S. military presence remains high, even among members of the government. President Ali Abdallah Salih's decision to permit greater U.S. involvement in domestic military operations may prompt opponents to resort to violence against U.S. assets and personnel in the coming months.

This is part of an American plan to tighten its grip on the Middle East and its oil wealth. For years, Washington has conducted limited training missions for Yemeni troops, as part the International Military Education and Training assistance program. The deployment marks a significant expansion in military relations between Yemen and the United States. Washington hopes to build a Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) facility on the Yemeni island of Socotra and secure access to strategic sea lanes in the Red and Arabian seas.

Yet again, Washington is stirring up problems for itself. Yemen is a very warlike country with a pre-industrial tribal society. Much of the population carries weapons, arms smugglers and drug traffickers pass through Yemen unmolested and the country serves as a networking base for militant groups from throughout the Middle East. Fire-fights in the capital are common. The presence of the US military in a country like this is an open invitation to an attack against American personnel and installations.

But the most serious danger to US imperialism is in Saudi Arabia, the key country in all the region from the standpoint of US economic and strategic interests. As we have pointed out, Saudi Arabia is in a deep crisis. The violent fluctuations of oil prices have undermined the economy and with it, the regime itself.

In the past the corrupt and degenerate Saudi royal family could sustain itself in power on the basis of the fabulous oil wealth that enabled it to give enormous concessions to the population. Most of the hard work was done by immigrants from poor Asian countries. But now things have changed. Living standards in Saudi Arabia are only twenty five percent of the level twenty years ago. Unemployment is growing and with it explosive discontent with the regime.

The royal family partly based itself on the Islamic clergy, with its narrow Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. The clerics turned a blind eye to its corruption, drunkenness and whoring, and in return the clergy were given absolute freedom to run its affairs in the country and abroad. They spread their reactionary poison to other states, they financed, armed and encouraged the reactionary Afghan mujaheddin in their war against the USSR and the Najibullah regime in Kabul.

The American imperialists were unconcerned with this. As long as the actions of the Islamic terrorists were directed against the USSR, they supported it. With amazing complacency, the CIA did not even keep a file on Saudi Arabia! Their position was the same as the old comment on the Nicaraguan dictator Somoza - "He's a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch." They were happy to leave the Saudis alone - until now.

The discontent with the Saudi regime expresses itself as a growth in Islamic fundamentalism. It is no accident that 14 of the terrorists involved in the September 11 attack were Saudi citizens. So is Bin Laden, the son of a Saudi millionaire with close links to the royal family. The Saudi regime is in deep trouble. It is split and in crisis. It could be overthrown at any time.

A US attack on Iraq can easily destabilise the Saudi regime. So can a continuation of the upheavals in Palestine. This explains the panic of the latter and its desperate attempt to end the conflict in Palestine. For the first time ever, the Saudis have put forward a proposal to end the problem through a compromise, which would involve an Israeli withdrawal from the Palestinian territories in exchange for the recognition of Israel by the Arab states. Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal offered Israel "complete peace from Arab nations" in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from Arab lands captured in 1967, and the creation of an independent Palestine with Jerusalem as its capital.

However, no sooner had the Saudis placed their offer on the table than the whole situation in Palestine blew up in their faces.

The Palestine inferno

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has escalated to unprecedented proportions. Just days before the arrival of the US special emissary in Tel Aviv, the Israeli army launched its biggest offensive in 20 years. The latest retaliation is part of an escalation in tit-for-tat attacks between the two sides. Over the weekend 22 Israelis died in Palestinian assaults while Israeli forces killed at least 16 Palestinians. Since the beginning of March, 150 Palestinians and 52 Israelis have been killed, making it the bloodiest period since fighting began in September 2000.

The West Bank and Gaza are now effectively occupied. This is a demonstration of naked force. Scores of Palestinians have been killed. The infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority has been destroyed. Yet in essence nothing has been resolved. Arafat has called for resistance. Sharon is hesitant to embark on a full-scale war. However, he also does not want to enter peace talks. So the present mess will continue and become worse The Israelis will continue with their methods of targeted assassinations of militant leaders and limited incursions into Palestinian territories. The Palestinians will reply with more suicide bombings. But in the end, neither side can win. We are therefore confronted with an uncontrollable downward spiral and a bloody descent into chaos.

If the violence continues - which it will - it will probably end with Israel reoccupying the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Such a move would require the annihilation of the Palestinian government, including the possible expulsion, arrest or even assassination of Palestinian Authority leaders. On the other hand, Sharon is in a weak position now. At the time of the elections he promised to solve the Palestinian problem and tried to do so by the employment of brute force. This is the only method this reactionary thug is capable of. But it has failed.

Far from solving the problem, Sharon has made it far worse. This is provoking widespread discontent inside Israel and even affecting the army (See Israel - Opposition grows) After last weekend's bloodshed, Sharon held an emergency meeting with his security Cabinet, which agreed to step up military pressure against Palestinian militants and also conduct air strikes against Palestinian infrastructure.

Some members of Sharon's Cabinet have even pushed for expulsion of Palestinians from Israel, and the prime minister himself may support the idea. But moral and security issues would probably rule that out. Sharon has argued that the Palestinians' will to fight must be broken before peace negotiations can begin. But so far none of these measures has been enough to deter Palestinian militants from launching assaults, and none has succeeded in dismantling the infrastructure needed to support their operations. On the contrary, Israel's current strategy serves only to harden the hearts and minds of the Palestinians. The fact is that Sharon is now running out of options. Events are running out of control, and driving the government to a critical point.

With his primitive military mind, Sharon may be betting that the Palestinians will not be able to sustain the current pace of assaults for an extended period, but the patience of the Israeli public is also running out. The rising number of Israeli casualties is damaging the prime minister's popularity, which has fallen to less than 50 percent for the first time. The Israel Labour Party, hitherto Sharon's pet poodle, has begun to consider leaving his coalition. The coalition government may well be brought down.

The Americans, who were happy to let Sharon stick in the boot after September 11, are now getting worried about the repercussions of the mess they have helped to cause. The Bush administration has withdrawn its sanction for Mr Sharon's campaign against the Palestinian. Last week's criticism of Mr Sharon by Secretary of State Colin Powell was a signal that Israel can no longer count on a green light from Washington for a policy of pulverising the Palestinians into submission. The Saudis will have been begging them to do something to stop it. The Israeli Labour leaders might be prepared to make concessions to Arafat. After so much violence, both sides must be getting tired. In a year or so, some kind of shaky deal might be struck, which will solve nothing fundamental and will break down again.

American power is, of course, the main force in the region, but there are limitations even to the sole superpower's capacity to reorganise the Middle East according to its own wishes. It was the American "war on terror" that encouraged Sharon to attack the Palestinians under the pretext of doing the same as George Bush. Now Washington wants to apply the brakes in Israel for its own purposes. However, an American attack on Iraq would immediately result in a further intensification of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and might even end up in a general war in the Middle East. Such a development would put in danger the permanence not only of the Saudi regime but possibly also that of Egypt and Jordan. In short, the activities of US imperialism have destabilised the Middle East and is continuing so to do.

As Professor Bernard Wasserstein recently said: "If there has been no earthquake there has been a significant shift in the tectonic plates. The tremors have already been registered on the political Richter scale, and they are likely to continue to reverberate."