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ISLAMABAD — Across the Mideast, the fact of life remains that violence breeds more violence. Thus the warning by Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah that al-Qaeda terrorists may stage retaliatory attacks if the United States leads a war against Iraq cannot be ignored. Speaking on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Abdullah said the terrorist group led by Osama bin Laden could attempt to foment instability amid a war atmosphere.

As the chorus of U.S.-led war drums grows louder, the danger of what could turn into catastrophic fallout for the Iraqi people may become less apparent. The expected bloodshed in the event of war — regardless of the fact that Washington is expected to win — could further distance the volatile region from a badly needed healing touch.

Ultimately, the U.S. and its allies who support a war against Iraq will have to deal with three crucial issues:

First, no matter how overwhelming the U.S. victory, the war is certain to work against efforts to get Iraq and other parts of the region to reach a long-overdue political consensus on key issues.

For years, turmoil across the oil-rich region has been fueled primarily by the aggravation of the Palestinian crisis. Israel’s harsh treatment of Palestinians and its continued denial of their political space only harden opinions across the Middle East. Whether the 9/11 tragedy could have been avoided if the Palestinian question had been solved remains a open question for many. Yet there is no way that a group like al-Qaeda could have attracted even a fraction of its popular support without its frequent references to the injustices against the Arab world in general and the Palestinians in particular. A further polarization of opinions in the Middle East is certain to follow a war that causes horrific human casualties in Iraq.

Second, a U.S.-led war on Iraq may aggravate a moribund global economy. There is bound to be more economic pain in parts of the world mainly as a result of the uncertainty that a two-stage conflict creates. The first stage — the military attack itself, possibly driven by a land invasion — is predictable. The U.S. may succeed in installing a government of its choice. The outcome of the second stage — the effects of the war — is unknown.

The danger of a terrorist backlash against Western interests in the region should never be underestimated. The yearlong war on terror has adequately demonstrated that finding terrorist targets, unlike military ones, is far more complicated. An enemy with at least some popular support can constantly change form almost like an amoeba. It is an enemy that no conventional military can train for. The combination of likely economic trouble at home for the Western powers and the unpredictability of the enemy beyond Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is a compelling challenge. The war may not allow even the few “victors” to claim victory.

Finally, there are no assurances that a conflict will help reduce the threat from weapons of mass destruction. For the U.S., the hope must be that the war would teach a sobering lesson to others considering WMD acquisition — chemical, biological or nuclear. However, there’s also every chance that governments and defiant groups that feel threatened by the prospect of a U.S.-led onslaught in the future may dedicate themselves further to acquiring new weapons systems with offensive capabilities.

Once a major war is unleashed, carving out peaceful alliances could become secondary to the search for foes. In this light, Abdullah’s remarks, although reflective of events in Afghanistan, are all the more significant.

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