Muslim Countries Want Peacekeepers, But Can They be Neutral?

Patrick Goodenough | International Editor | Thursday, August 10, 2006

Muslim Countries Want Peacekeepers, But Can They be Neutral?

( - Two leading Muslim nations are preparing to contribute troops to an international peacekeeping force in Lebanon, but one of the two is doing nothing to stop local Islamists who want to travel to Lebanon to fight against Israel, and the foreign minister of the other has not ruled out sending weapons to Hizballah.

The two Southeast Asian countries, Indonesia and Malaysia, also have made it clear they hold Israel responsible for the crisis.

Following an emergency meeting of the 56-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said his country and Malaysia had agreed to participate in a U.N. peacekeeping mission. A third regional Muslim nation, the tiny sultanate of Brunei, is favorably considering a request to join them, he said.

Indonesia is expected to send more than 200 personnel, 12 armored vehicles, 10 military trucks and a number of tanks to Lebanon, the official news agency Antara quoted Marines Corps chief Maj.-Gen. Safzen Noerdin as saying.

They would be deployed together with Malaysia and Brunei forces once a ceasefire has been agreed, he said.

No international mission has yet been agreed upon, but it is a subject of diplomatic wrangling in New York, where U.N. member states are debating its composition, mandate, and whether Israeli forces should pull out immediately, or only once it arrives.

Irrespective of whatever mandate and timing is eventually decided, any international mission will be expected to play a neutral role in keeping peace between Israel and Hizballah.

Whether Indonesia and Malaysia are able to do so remains to be seen, but neither government -- nor the majority of others represented in the OIC -- have voiced public criticism for Hizballah for triggering the conflict, while directing a barrage of condemnation at Israel.

In Indonesia, Muslim radicals have publicly announced their intention to travel to Lebanon to join the jihad against Israel. Several small Islamist groups have openly set up recruitment stations for would-be fighters to sign up, and masked, black-clad men have taken part in televised displays of marching and martial arts.

Some have threatened to carry out suicide bombing attacks in support of the jihad, against American, British and Australian targets, with one group saying some 200 volunteers had already left.

Indonesia has itself been a victim of Islamist terrorism, yet there have been no reports of volunteer jihadists or suicide bombers being arrested.

Susilo and his deputy have expressed understanding for the desire of angry Indonesian Muslims to help those in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, but said any help should be humanitarian.

An Indonesian national police spokesman, Brig.-Gen. Anton Bachrul Alam, told Antara that the police would not allow Indonesians to go to the conflict-zone, because their going would worsen matters.

He did not say, however, how police would stop them, and Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda said Tuesday the government had no way of preventing anyone from going to fight. It had issued a travel advisory warning against visiting Lebanon for any purpose, he added.

"As usual our leaders are cautious of treading on raw nerves when it comes to anything to do with global Muslim solidarity," Indonesian writer Ati Nurbaiti wrote in The Jakarta Post.

"None of the leaders are ruling out or condemning offers of suicide bombers," she said. "Is it because they're waiting to see if the offer of such services is only for locations outside the country? Is suicide bombing a crime in the country but a gift of sacrifice to be proud of when exported?

"We love to curse the Americans and others for their double standards," Ati wrote. "Now is a good time to check our own, before brimming with pride and cheering on our boys in black."

'Arm Hizballah'

In neighboring Malaysia, former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad said late last week that if the U.S. was providing Israel with military aid, then OIC members should send weapons to Hizballah. Malaysia currently chairs the Islamic bloc.

Mahathir said in a statement that the carnage caused by Israeli "terrorists" would not be possible without American and British backing and collusion.

Despite retiring three years ago, the veteran former leader remains an influential - critics say meddling - voice in Malaysian affairs.

Rather than repudiate or ignore Mahathir's call, Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar characterized it as a sign of frustration in the Islamic world. He said that frustration was shared by "many members of the public and many of the OIC countries," and should be taken heed of by the international community.

"Some suggested we supply arms [to Hizballah]," Syed Hamid was quoted as saying by the state Bernama news agency. "Okay, we should look at all these things ... we must not allow Israel to do what it wants."

He added that Malaysia would act "in accordance with the internationally accepted norms and principles."

The foreign minister also complained that a U.N. Security Council resolution would reward Israel if it allowed the Jewish state's troops to remain in southern Lebanon until an international force was deployed.

The OIC is backing a call by the Arab League -- all of whose members are also in the OIC -- for an immediate Israeli troop withdrawal.

In a further sign on Malaysia's partisan position on the conflict, a daily newspaper controlled by Malaysia's ruling UMNO party said in a weekend editorial that Hizballah was not a terrorist organization.

"The schools, clinics and other social welfare institutions that it runs and the assistance it provides to orphans and the poor make it much more than an armed group," said the New Straits Times. "It is also an influential political party with 14 parliamentary seats and one minister in the Lebanese cabinet."

Furthermore, Hizballah not backed by Shi'ites alone, it continued. "In much of the Muslim world, Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah is gaining recognition from Sunnis as an Islamic warrior and defender of the faith."

The same editorial declared that Israel was "guilty of crimes against humanity."

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