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World leaders worry, seek plans for Arab unrest

Arab protest wave hurts al-Qaida, Iran: U.S.


WASHINGTON (AFP) ― U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Tuesday that protests across the Arab world have dealt a major setback to al-Qaida militants and Iran by endorsing democratic change.

“It basically gives the lie to al-Qaida’s claim that the only way to get rid of authoritarian governments is through extremist violence,” Gates told reporters.

With a wave of unrest and protests toppling regimes in Egypt and Tunisia and prompting reforms elsewhere, Gates said grassroots movements “are an extraordinary setback for al-Qaida.”

The Pentagon chief, a former intelligence analyst and CIA director, said that the example of mostly peaceful uprisings also posed a problem for Iran that might become more acute over time.

“Because the contrast in the behavior of the militaries in Tunisia and in Egypt, and ― except for a brief period of violence ― in Bahrain, contrast vividly with the savage repression that the Iranians have undertaken against anybody who dares to demonstrate,” Gates explained.
Robert Gates
Robert Gates

Describing himself as “an optimist about these changes,” Gates said it could take months or years for the unrest to play out but “a process of change has begun” after decades of “frozen” political arrangements.

If political change in the region occurs without violence and gives rise to democratic rule, it will be “a gain for everybody.”

When asked if popular anger could pose a threat to allies in Saudi Arabia or Jordan, Gates played down any serious risk to U.S. interests.

“We obviously have very strong and longstanding relationships with both of those countries,” Gates said.

“Both kings have undertaken reforms over time. There is clearly a need for continuation of those efforts, and we’re supportive of them.”

Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, agreed with Gates at the same press conference, saying “it is a message that completely undermines the strategy of al-Qaida.”

At a Senate hearing earlier, the head of U.S. Central Command, General James Mattis, made the same point, saying al-Qaida had suffered a propaganda blow.

“At the same time the populist-inspired changes that are taking place across the region undercut the message of al-Qaida and other extremist groups, highlighting the bankrupt philosophies of terrorists who use violence and contribute nothing but mayhem to the innocent,” Mattis said.

“These young folks today have achieved more change in 10 weeks than 10 years of al-Qaida’s murderous campaigns,” he added.
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