Arabs offer Blair little support for bombing


RIYADH - Prime Minister Tony Blair appears to have won little sympathy from Arab leaders for the three-week-old military campaign against Afghanistan after struggling to justify the US bombing.

Blair, on the second leg of a Middle East tour today, instead came face to face with Arab disquiet at the West's response to the September 11 attacks on the United States.

"I think that people understand that when so many thousands of people are slaughtered in cold blood in the way they were, that we have to bring to account those responsible," he said in Saudi Arabia.

"I also think people want us to do everything we can to minimise civilian casualties in the action we take. And we do."

Blair was speaking in between separate talks with King Fahd and his half-brother Crown Prince Abdullah, who handles the kingdom's day-to-day affairs.

Blair arrived in Saudi Arabia from Damascus where President Bashar al-Assad publicly criticised Washington's military action. He also listened in Riyadh to the views of a handful of members of Saudi Arabia's consultative council.

Asked if Blair had heard a single Arab voice backing the bombing in the last 24 hours, his spokesman gave no direct answer.

Saudi officials have said they back the global fight against "terrorism" but want the air strikes against Afghanistan concluded swiftly.

The birthplace of Islam and home to its two holiest shrines, Saudi Arabia is particularly sensitive to military action against a fellow Muslim state.

It is also vulnerable to anti-American sentiment in view of a US military presence on its soil.

Blair said Saudi Arabia had agreed to back efforts for a broad-based government in Afghanistan when the current conflict ended. Saudi Arabia, one of only three countries which formally recognised the Taleban, severed its links them last month.

"We have agreed that we should work together closely in order to make sure that in the future for Afghanistan there is a government which is as broad-based as possible, that includes all the main groupings," Blair said. Saudi sources said earlier Saudi officials would try to drive home to Blair the message that until a solution is found to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Middle East will continue to be a breeding-ground for so-called terrorism.

"There is a clear agreement that we need to get that process underway," Blair told reporters.

Britain wanted "security for Israel, justice and equality of treatment for Palestinians, and a Palestinian state".

"Those two fixed points are the basis for proper negotiations," he said.

Blair visited Syria earlier in the day on the high-speed Middle Eastern tour. British officials said beforehand he would urge Assad to rein in the activities of Damascus-based militant groups.

But, in a direct rebuff to those efforts, Assad said groups fighting Israeli occupation of Arab land were exercising their legitimate rights. "Resistance to liberate land is an international right that no one can deny," Assad said.

Blair later arrived in Jordan. "The Palestinian issue will be a main topic of discussions, but the events in Afghanistan will also be raised," Jordan's Minister of State Saleh Qallab said before Blair's arrival.

Blair's spokesman called Jordan "a moderate Arab country".

"It's been very close, very supportive and it can play a role encouraging people not to let extremists operate," he said.

After talks with Jordanian leaders Blair is expected to travel on to Israel and Gaza.