End of the Houthis?


This artice first appeared on The Media Line.

Thirteen months ago the Iranian-backed Houthi stormed into Sana’a taking control over large swathes of Yemen in the process. Attempts between the group and the incumbent President Abd Rabu Mansur Hadi to cooperate eventually collapsed leading to the premier’s escape into exile in February of this year. An air campaign led by Saudi Arabia followed, reversing much of the territorial gains made by the Shi’ite militia.

As a result the Houthi have recently announced that its fighters will withdraw from the remaining territory they hold, signaling what could be the beginning of the end of the country’s civil war. The Media Line spoke to Yemenis and representatives of the group to ask them what they believed had been achieved in the year-long Houthi rule. 

The group’s first achievement was in preventing Saudi Arabia from breaking Yemen into numerous small regions, Abu Mohammed Al-Marwani, a Houthi leading figure, told The Media Line. “We are fighting a war to define the fate of Yemen: either we escape (Saudi) control or remain slaves to them. We are determined to defeat them in order to have the right to decide our destiny,” Al-Marwani said.

The Houthi commander also claimed that his organization had contributed to the fight against al-Qa’ida by pushing the group into the province of Hadramout.

“The US and other parties were able to kill the leader of al-Qa’ida in Yemen, Nasser Al-Wuhaishi. If we had not cornered them in Hadramout, America would not have been able to kill him,” Al-Marwani argued. The local franchise of the jihadist organization, known as al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was for some time considered the most dangerous branch of the Sunni extremist network, having attempted a number of sophisticated bomb attacks against US interests. 

Al-Marwani added that his organization had done much to reduce banditry in Yemen which previously plagued rural roads and had tackled corruption within government ministries.

“The Houthi made a huge mistake when they entered Sana’a at gunpoint and turned against the government,” Hussam Murshed Badi, an expert who follows armed organizations, told The Media Line. Badi accused the Houthi of orchestrating an energy crisis and of allowing a black market to flourish in order to provide back channel funds to its fighters. As part of this process all gas stations were closed down so that demand on the illegal market, and thus prices would soar, Badi alleged.

“We used to accuse the former regime of corruption,’ he said. “But those (the Houthis), the least we can call them is thieves. They have made millions of people homeless and hundreds of thousands unemployed.’ 

While Badi conceded that the Houthi did help suppress AQAP in some parts of the country, he suggested that elsewhere the group had expanded. Its enemies distracted and fighting each other, al-Qa’ida rearmed and expanded in the Hadramout area, Badi said. 

“It’s true that the Houthis have caused destruction, but if they were given a chance, they would have achieved things,” Mohammed Al-Anesi, a citizen in Sana’a, told The Media Line.

Mohammed Al-Qadri, another resident of Sana’a, agreed with Al-Anesi describing an incident where his taxi, his primary source of income, was stolen at gun point by ten armed men. Local police refused to help Al-Qadri retrieve his automobile. But when the Houthi arrived in the city they quickly enacted justice, Al-Qadri said, explaining, “I got my car back and the bandits were detained.”

Other Yemenis support the Houthi not for their appreciation of the group or its ideology but because of a desire to hit back at Saudi Arabia, who they see as an aggressor towards their country.

“The Houthis are the cause of all the blights of Yemen… but I am fighting for them right now, (because) we have a common enemy – Saudi Arabia,” Mujahid Al-Anesi, a resident of Dhamar, told The Media Line. Women, children and elderly people being killed by Saudi bombs had motivated Al-Anesi to fight against the Saudis, but later it would be the turn of the Houthi, the fighter said. 

“There is an old Yemeni proverb that says my cousin and I are enemies until the stranger comes, and then we fight him together,” Al-Anesi explained.

Several citizens said they were not originally sympathetic to Houthi rule but had come around to supporting the group due to their anger at Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Some individuals have even joined the fighters of the Houthi as a result.

The Houthi declared that they will withdraw from Sana’a and relinquish territory previously taken in order to end the suffering of the people of Yemen, Mohammed Al-Bukhaiti, a member of the organization’s political office, told The Media Line. The Houthi will comply with the United Nations’ Security Council (UNSC) directive 2216 providing it is overseen by the UN itself, Al-Bukhaiti said. 

“We made concessions to end the suffering of Yemenis caused by the Saudi bombardment that spared nothing and no one,” the Houthi political officer declared.

However an exclusive source within Prime Minister Khaled Mahafoudh Bahah’s cabinet divulged to The Media Line that the government had no faith in the Houthi’s word. 

“The legitimate government does not believe the Houthi, therefore (President) Hadi’s government and the coalition will condition that their forces replace the Houthi’s to ensure that the latter’s forces will actually withdraw,” the source said.

Islamic State urges followers to escalate attacks in Ramadan


Islamic State urged its followers on Tuesday to escalate attacks against Christians, Shi'ites and Sunni Muslims fighting with a U.S.-led coalition against the ultra-radical group.

Jihadists should turn the holy month of Ramadan, which began last week, into a time of “calamity for the infidels … Shi'ites and apostate Muslims”, Isalmic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani said in an audio message. He urged more attacks in Iraq, Syria and Libya.

“Muslims everywhere, we congratulate you over the arrival of the holy month,” he said. “Be keen to conquer in this holy month and to become exposed to martyrdom.”

Adnani also called on Sunnis in Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia to rise against “tyrannical leaders” and warned them against advancing Shi'ites, pointing to the treatment of Sunnis under a Shi'ite-led government in Iraq and in Syria under the Alawites, the Shi'ite offshoot to which President Bashar al Assad belongs.

He said his group was undeterred by the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State, which has seized large areas of Iraq and Syria and proclaimed a caliphate.

“We will continue, God willing, in our path and will not care even if many nations gang up against us or how many swords we are struck by,” he said.

Adnani also warned U.S. President Barack Obama that Islamic State would retaliate for the attacks against it.

“Obama and your defeated army, we promise you in the future setback after setback and surprise after surprise,” he said.

Sunni tribes in Iraq were joining the militants after the Iraqi government and the United States had failed to bring them into Iraq's political process, Adnani said.

“The Sunni people are now behind the jihadists … the enemies have been petrified by the daily pledges of allegiance by the chiefs of tribes to the Mujahideen,” he said.

In response to the pleading of Iraqi tribal elders, Adnani said, Islamic State chief Abu Bakr al Baghdadi had given Sunnis working with the U.S.-led coalition and those who were still in the Iraqi army one last chance to repent.

In recent weeks, several major Iraqi tribes in the restive Anbar province announced their allegiance to the militants in recorded videos.

Adnani devoted the bulk of his 29-minute speech to an appeal to Iraqi Sunnis. He said their enemies were Western infidels and Shiites, who wanted to expel them from Iraq and turn it into a Shi'ite state. Iraqi Sunnis were being evicted en masse from areas taken over by Shi'ite militias supported by the Iraqi government, he said.

“Needless to say, you all know the kidnappings, evictions, killings of Sunnis that happen every day in Baghdad,” he said. “Thousands and thousands” were already jailed in prisons in the predominantly Shi'ite provinces of southern Iraq, he said.

Adnani also called on those insurgents fighting the militant group in north and northwestern Syria to stop battling them or face the consequences.

Iraq deploys tanks as Islamic State tightens grip on Ramadi


Iraqi security forces on Tuesday deployed tanks and artillery around Ramadi to confront Islamic State fighters who have captured the city in a major defeat for the Baghdad government and its Western backers.

After Ramadi fell on Sunday, Shi'ite militiamen allied to the Iraqi army had advanced to a nearby base in preparation for a counterattack on the city, which lies in Anbar province just 70 miles northwest of Baghdad.

As pressure mounted for action to retake the city, a local government official urged Ramadi residents to join the police and the army for what the Shi'ite militiamen said would be the “Battle of Anbar”.

Sunni Islamic State fighters had set up defensive positions and laid landmines, witnesses said. As the group tightened its grip on the city, Islamists went from house to house in search of members of the police and armed forces and said they would set up courts based on Islamic Sharia law.

They released about 100 prisoners from the counter-terrorism detention center in the city.

Saed Hammad al-Dulaimi, 37, a school teacher who is still in the city, said: “Islamic State used loudspeakers urging people who have relatives in prison to gather at the main mosque in the city center to pick them up. I saw men rushing to the mosque to receive their prisoners.”

The move could prove popular with residents who have complained that people are often subject to arbitrary detention.

Sami Abed Saheb, 37, a Ramadi restaurant owner, said Islamic State found 30 women and 71 men in the detention center. They had been shot in the feet to prevent them escaping when their captors fled.

Witnesses said the black flag of Islamic State was now flying over the main mosque, government offices and other prominent buildings in Ramadi.

Jasim Mohammed, 49, who owns a women's clothing shop, said an Islamic State member had told him he must now sell only traditional Islamic garments.

“I had to remove the mannequins and replace them with other means of displaying the clothes. He told me that I shouldn't sell underwear because it's forbidden,” he said.

Islamic State had also promised that food, medicine and doctors would soon be available.

Dulaimi said Islamic State fighters were using cranes to lift blast walls from the streets and bulldozers to shovel away sand barriers built by security forces before they fled.

“I think they (Islamic State) are trying to win the sympathy of people in Ramadi and give them moments of peace and freedom,” he said.

SECTARIAN HOSTILITY

The decision by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is a Shi'ite, to send in the militia, known as Hashid Shaabi or Popular Mobilisation, to try to retake the predominantly Sunni city could add to sectarian hostility in one of the most violent parts of Iraq.

The Abadi government had pledged to equip and train pro-government Sunni tribes with a view to replicating the model applied during the “surge” campaign of 2006-07, when U.S. Marines turned the tide against al Qaeda fighters – forerunners of Islamic State – by arming and paying local tribes in a movement known as the Anbar Awakening.

But a repeat will be more difficult. Sunni tribal leaders complain that the government was not serious about arming them again, and say they received only token support.

There are fears that weapons provided to Sunni tribes could end up with Islamic State. Islamic State has also worked to prevent a new Awakening movement by killing sheikhs and weakening the tribes.

Iraqi ministers on Tuesday stressed the need to arm and train police and tribal fighters. Abadi called for national unity in the battle to defend Iraq.

A spokesman for Iraqi military operations, Saad Maan, said the armed forces controlled areas between Ramadi and the Habbaniya military base about 30 km (20 miles) away where the militia fighters are waiting.

“Security forces are reinforcing their positions and setting three defensive lines around Ramadi to repel any attempts by terrorists to launch further attacks,” Maan said.

“All these three defensive lines will become offensive launch-pads once we determine the zero hour to liberate Ramadi.”

The International Organization for Migration said 40,000 people had been forced to flee Ramadi in the past four days.

About 500 people were killed in the fighting for Ramadi in recent days, local officials said.

Islamic State gains in Ramadi mean it will take longer for Iraqi forces to move against them in Mosul, where militants celebrated victory in Anbar by firing shots into the air, sounding car horns and playing Islamic anthems, residents said.

Obama weighs action in Iraq but rules out combat troops


President Barack Obama said on Friday he needs several days to determine how the United States will help Iraq deal with a militant insurgency, but he ruled out sending U.S. troops back into combat and said any intervention would be contingent on Iraqi leaders becoming more involved.

Obama did not describe the “range of options” he is considering to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, a group he described as “vicious” and a “terrorist organization” that could eventually pose a threat to Americans.

He said Iraqi leaders needed to set aside sectarian differences to deal with the threat, and said the United States would engage in “intensive diplomacy” in the region to try to prevent the situation from worsening.

“The United States is not simply going to involve itself in a military action in the absence of a political plan by the Iraqis that gives us some assurance that they are prepared to work together,” Obama told reporters at the White House. He said he was concerned that ISIL could try to overrun Shi'ite sacred sites, creating sectarian conflicts “that could be very hard to stamp out.” The rebels are Sunni Muslims and the Baghdad government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is dominated by Shi'ites.

“This is a regional problem, and it is going to be a long-term problem. And what we're going to have to do is combine selective actions by our military to make sure that we're going after terrorists who could harm our personnel overseas or eventually hit the homeland,” Obama said.

Obama said he wanted to review intelligence on the situation in Iraq so that any U.S. actions are “targeted, they are precise, and they are going to have an effect.”

He also said he would consult with the U.S. Congress, where Republicans have been critical of Obama for failing to negotiate a deal with Iraq under which the United States would have left a small force there after pulling out troops at the end of 2011.

Obama's fellow Democrats are reluctant to see military intervention after the lengthy war, which began with the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to topple President Saddam Hussein.

“Look, the United States has poured a lot of money into these Iraqi security forces,” Obama told reporters before leaving on a previously scheduled trip to North Dakota. He was scheduled to spend the weekend in California.

Obama was expected to talk to foreign leaders about the situation over the weekend, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters traveling with Obama on Air Force One.

Earnest said the Obama administration had not yet discussed potential interventions with Iran, Iraq's neighbor to the east and a backer of Maliki.

Obama said the insurgency so far had not caused major disruptions to oil supplies from Iraq, but that if insurgents took control of refineries, other oil producers in the Middle East would need to help “pick up the slack.”

“That will be part of the consultations that will be taking place during the course of this week,” Obama said.

Reporting by Roberta Rampton, Steve Holland, Jeff Mason, Susan Heavey and Eric Beech; Editing by David Storey and Grant McCool

Nasrallah warns Israel that Hezbollah will avenge commander’s killing


Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah on Friday vowed to avenge Israel for the killing of a senior Hezbollah commander in Beirut earlier this month.

Hassan Laqqis, who fought in Syria's civil war for the Lebanese Shi'ite militia, was shot dead outside his home on December 4.

A previously unknown group, Ahrar al-Sunna Baalbek brigade, claimed responsibility at the time of the attack, but Hezbollah quickly blamed Israel, with which it fought a 34-day war in 2006.

“All the indicators and clues points to the Israeli enemy,” Nasrallah said, in his first public comments since the attack.

“Our killer is known, our enemy is known, our adversary is known … When the facts point to Israel, we accuse it,” he said in televised remarks to supporters in southern Beirut.

Israel has denied any role in the shooting and hinted that the motive may have been Hezbollah's military support for Syrian President Bashar Assad in his war with mainly Sunni Muslim rebels.

The 2-1/2 year-old civil war in Syria has polarized the Middle East between Sunni Muslim powers, such as Turkey and the Gulf Arab states who support the rebels, and Shi'ite Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah, who back Assad.

The president's Alawite faith is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

Hezbollah has sent several thousand fighters to Syria, helping to turn the tide in Assad's favor this year. But Nasrallah said on Friday that would not prevent it from avenging the killing of Laqqis.

“If the Israelis think … that Hezbollah is busy and that Israel will not pay the price, I say to them today, 'You are wrong',” he said.

“The killers will be punished sooner or later and the blood of our martyrs – whether large or small – will not be wasted. Those who killed will not be safe anywhere in the world. Vengeance is coming.”

The open role of Hezbollah fighters in the Syrian civil war and the steady flow of Lebanese Sunnis joining the anti-Assad rebels have fuelled sectarian strife in Lebanon.

Car bombs killed dozens of people in Beirut in August and a twin suicide attack on the Iranian embassy in the Lebanese capital killed at least 25 people last month.

But Nasrallah mocked critics who he said blamed Lebanon's woes – from sectarian tension to the flooding of a road during winter storms – on Hezbollah's intervention in Syria.

“Why isn't there a government? Because Hezbollah entered Syria. Why haven't we held elections? Hezbollah is in Syria. Why is the economic situation like this? Hezbollah is in Syria. Why did the tunnel on the airport road become a lake? Because Hezbollah is in Syria. This of course isn't logical.”

Reporting by Laila Basasm and Stephen Kalin; Editing by Mike Collett-White

Israel says it bombed Lebanon in retaliation for rocket attack


Israel's air force bombed a militant target in Lebanon on Friday in retaliation for a cross-border rocket salvo on Thursday, a spokesman said.

An Israeli military source said the “terror site” bombed was near Na'ameh, between Beirut and Sidon, but did not immediately provide further details.

Four rockets fired on Thursday caused damage but no casualties in northern Israel. They were claimed by an al Qaeda-linked Sunni Muslim group rather than Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shiite militia that holds sway in south Lebanon.

“Israel will not tolerate terrorist aggression originating from Lebanese territory,” military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner said in a statement announcing Friday's air strike.

Israel and Lebanon are technically at war. Israel briefly invaded Lebanon during an inconclusive 2006 conflict with Hezbollah. The Israelis now are reluctant to open a new Lebanese front, however, given spiraling regional instability.

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Bill Trott

Fearful Syrian voters will keep Assad in power, Hezbollah deputy leader says


Syrian President Bashar Assad is likely to run for re-election next year and win, with Syria remaining in military and political deadlock until then, said the deputy leader of Lebanon's Iranian-backed Hezbollah group.

Sheikh Naim Qassem, who predicted a year ago that Assad would not be dislodged from power, said the Syrian leader would win a vote because his supporters understood that their communities' very existence depended on him.

“I believe that in a year's time he will stand for the presidency. It will be the people's choice, and I believe the people will choose him,” said the bearded, turban-wearing Shi'ite cleric, speaking carefully and deliberately.

“The crisis in Syria is prolonged, and the West and the international community have been surprised by the degree of steadfastness and popularity of the regime.”

Citing rifts among Assad's foes inside and outside Syria, as well as disagreements among world powers over Assad's future, Qassem said any talk of political solutions was futile for now.

“It will take at least three or four months” for any such solution, he said in a meeting with Reuters editors. “Maybe things will continue until 2014 and the presidential election.”

The two-year-old revolt against Assad is the bloodiest and most protracted of the Arab uprisings. At least 70,000 people have been killed and the violence has stoked tensions across the Middle East between the two main branches of Islam.

Shi'ite Iran and Hezbollah have supported Assad, whose Alawite sect derives from Shi'ite Islam. The mainly Sunni rebels are backed by Sunni powers Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.

Some Western leaders have long predicted Assad's imminent demise, but Qassem said he was likely to be re-elected in 2014.

BLACKED-OUT WINDOWS

Wearing brown robes and a white turban, he spoke in a windowless office in Hezbollah's southern Beirut stronghold.

Journalists were driven to the undisclosed venue in a car with blacked-out windows, a security precaution in violence-prone Lebanon. Three Hezbollah leaders have been assassinated in the past two decades; the group blames Israel for the killings.

Hezbollah, the most accomplished military force in Lebanon, fought Israel to a standstill in a 2006 war and, with its mainly Shi'ite and Christian allies, now holds a majority of cabinet seats in Prime Minister Najib Mikati's government.

Mikati has tried to insulate his country from the fighting in Syria but Lebanese Shi'ites and Sunnis have both been drawn into the fighting. Hezbollah denies accusations that it has sent its forces into Syria to fight alongside Assad's troops.

Despite significant and sustained rebel gains, Qassem said the Syrian authorities had scored a string of military successes since insurgents launched attacks in Damascus a few months ago.

“The regime has started winning clearly, point by point,” he said. “And the tensions among the countries supporting the armed (rebel) groups have become clearer.”

Assad's forces still control central Damascus and large parts of the cities of Homs, Hama and Aleppo to the north. But they have lost swathes of territory in the rural north and most of the eastern towns and cities along the Euphrates River.

In such areas, the Syrian military relies heavily on missiles, artillery and air strikes to pin back rebel advances.

RISK OF DISINTEGRATION

Qassem said Syria only had one viable option: “Either they reach a political solution, in agreement with President Assad … or there can be no alternative regime in Syria,” he said.

Asked whether Syria might fall apart, he replied: “Everything is possible.”

Syria's population includes Christians, Shi'ites, Alawites, Druze and Ismailis as well as majority Sunnis who include mystical Sufis and secularists as well as pious conservatives.

Qassem portrayed authorities as fighting to protect that diversity in the face of hardline Sunni Islamist rebels. “The regime is defending itself in a battle which it sees as an existential fight, not a struggle for power,” he said.

Assad also faced international opposition from countries trying to break the “resistance project,” a reference to the anti-Israel alliance of Syria, Hezbollah and Iran, he added.

Israel, which diplomats and regional security sources said bombed a convoy in Syria two months ago carrying weapons which may have been destined for Hezbollah, has warned that military action may be needed to stop Iran's nuclear programme.

Israel and Western nations suspect Iran is seeking atomic weapons, a charge it denies. Israel says a “clear and credible military threat” against Iran is needed to halt Tehran's work.

But Qassem said the United States was reluctant to get dragged into a “costly” conflict with Tehran.

“It would not halt Iran's peaceful nuclear programme but would just delay it for a few years,” he said. “In return America's interests in the region and those of its allies and Israel would be in great and unpredictable danger.”

Washington's caution over Iran had echoes in what he said was its equivocal position towards Syria.

Although the United States says it provides only non-lethal aid to the rebels, Qassem said the presence of U.S.-made weapons in Syria proved it had at very least given approval for third countries to ship arms to Assad's opponents.

But the prolonged fighting had put Washington in a dilemma about whether to “follow the political path” instead, he said.

“America has lost its way over the steps it wants to take in Syria. On the one hand it wants the regime overthrown, and on the other it fears losing control after the regime falls.”

Additional reporting by Laila Bassam; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Alistair Lyon

Israel Worried About U.S. Iraq Withdrawl


As Shiite and Sunni resistance to the American presence in Iraq intensifies, Israel’s defense establishment is worried that a U.S. withdrawal under fire could have devastating consequences for the battles against weapons of mass destruction and global terrorism.

And Israel could be one of the big losers: Israeli officials believe a loss of American deterrence would encourage Iran to continue its nuclear weapons program, and its support for terrorism could lead to a hardening of Syrian and Palestinian attitudes against accommodation with Israel and could spark more Palestinian and other terrorism directed against Israeli targets.

Without American deterrence and a pro-Western Iraq, the officials say, Israel might have to rethink its attitude on key issues like the concessions it can afford to make to the Palestinians, its readiness for a land war on its eastern front and the size of its defense budget.

But there is an opposing, minority view in Israeli academic and intelligence circles: The quicker the Americans leave, this view holds, the quicker the Iraqis will have to get their act together. And once they do, they will not necessarily pose a threat to Israel or the West.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz summoned a meeting in early April of Israeli intelligence services and other branches to discuss the implications for Israel of the unrest in Iraq. Some of the analyses were bleak.

When the United States launched a war on Saddam Hussein’s regime in March 2003, Israeli military planners hoped for several significant gains.

Saddam’s defeat and the destruction of the Iraqi war machine would remove the threat of hundreds of Iraqi and Syrian tanks rumbling across the desert to threaten Israel’s eastern border, officials believed. They also hoped for a domino effect that would lead Syria and the Palestinians to seek accommodation with Israel, countries like Iran and Libya to rethink their nuclear weapons programs and terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad to exercise restraint.

In the first year after the war, some of that seemed to be happening. Now some Israeli intelligence analysts fear a reversal of these processes, with all the attendant dangers for Israel.

In the meeting with Mofaz, there was a general consensus that if American deterrence in the region is weakened, Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad all will be encouraged to mount or incite even more terrorism against Israel.

Some officers expressed fear of possible Iranian intervention in southern Iraq on the side of the Shiites, if the situation degenerates into war between the Sunni and Shiite populations after a hasty American withdrawal. That could lead to a radical Shiite regime in Iraq, similar to the one in Iran.

If such a radical Iraq were to emerge, some officers suggested, Israel might have to reconsider the huge cuts in the size of its tank forces that it planned after the destruction of Saddam’s army last year. That could impact the key defense budget, which was slashed last year and again this year as part of a general government austerity program.

A loss of American prestige in the region, some officials said, also could impact countries with pro-American regimes like Egypt and Jordan, and might mean that American guarantees to Israel in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would carry less weight.

In general, American attempts to stabilize the Middle East would suffer a huge setback, with potentially harsh consequences for Israel and the West. The two main goals of the U.S.-led war — curbing the proliferation of nuclear weapons in rogue countries such as Iran and striking a blow against global terrorists such as Al Qaeda — could be reversed.

In an interview with the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, Mofaz echoed these concerns, saying, "America’s success in Iraq is essential for world peace. If the Americans manage to stabilize the situation in Iraq — and we in Israel believe they will — that will have a positive impact on the Middle East as a whole, on the world oil market and on the prestige of the international community."

But, he cautioned, "if the Americans are forced to withdraw in the wake of terrorist pressure, a new and dangerous model of Arab regime will be created. The axis of evil will lift its head, and it could threaten world peace."

Some Middle East experts in Israeli academia and the military take a more sanguine view, however. They argue that if the Americans withdraw soon after the handover of power to the Iraqi Provisional Council, scheduled for June 30, Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiites would reach a modus vivendi on shared rule to keep the country from plunging into chaos.

They ask: Would a new Iraqi regime — even if radical Shiites are a dominant part of it — adopt a provocative, anti-Western stance after what happened to Saddam? If they did, who would rearm them? And without sizable quantities of sophisticated weaponry, how could they threaten Israel or the Western world?

Surely, these experts reason, any new Iraqi regime would prefer to tap America’s willingness to reconstruct Iraq and allow oil revenues to create a basis for new prosperity. They argue that an orderly American withdrawal, announced well in advance, would do more for American prestige in the area than an ill-fated attempt to crush the dissident Iraqi militias.

But this is a minority view in Israel, and similar predictions of rational Arab moderation — such as the thinking that led to the creation of the Palestinian Authority — have proven wrong in the past. Most members of the government, the defense establishment and the intelligence community believe America should maintain its military presence in Iraq in an effort to create a Western-leaning regime there and through it, a new and more stable Middle East.

When President Bush says, "America will stay the course," they take heart.