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U.S. hoping London blasts will unite West

United States policymakers are working this week to hammer home the Bush administration’s perspective on last week’s bombings in London, hoping that outrage will help mend strains dating from the start of the Iraq war, according U.S. and European diplomats.

U.S. policymakers are working this week to hammer home the Bush administration’s perspective on last week’s bombings in London, a view that emphasizes the bloodthirsty nature of al-Qaida, the necessity of re-examining long-established notions of law enforcement and the longer-term importance of bringing democracy to the Islamic world, beginning in Iraq.

With critics of British Prime Minister Tony Blair linking the attack to his decision to join the U.S.-led war in Iraq, the United States is hoping to help Blair counter such claims by pushing for a reassessment of the West's  approach to terrorism. From President Bush down, the message is one of determination to fight on mixed with encouragement for democratic nations to “take off the gloves,” as one American diplomat put it, in the fight against terrorism.

“These kind of people who blow up subways and buses are not people you can negotiate with, or reason with, or appease,” Bush said on Monday before the FBI Academy’s graduating class in Quantico, Va. Using the appearance to tout the benefits of the Patriot Act, which gave unprecedented new powers to law enforcement and intelligence agencies, he vowed to “continue to take extraordinary measures to defend the homeland” and urged American allies to do the same.

Diplomats say the U.S. is hoping European governments will close ranks with Washington on a variety of issues related to the war against al-Qaida and the groups it inspires. Specifically, the U.S. would like the European Union to lead an effort to improve European “domestic security” measures and to streamline the variety of laws and national practices that govern areas like joint terrorism investigations, intelligence sharing and extradition.

“There is a upside and a downside analysis, and the up is that this attack drives home that even a sophisticated country like Great Britain needs to take new steps to fight terrorism,” said an American diplomat in Europe. “We’ve taken a lot of heat over Guantanamo and for being aggressive in pursuing terrorists wherever they are, and we believe this underscores that you can’t just treat terrorists like they are bank robbers or even common murderers.”

Strained networks
American officials see these reforms as important not only for Europe’s security but for U.S. security as well. “Remember, a lot of the 9/11 plot was hatched on European soil,” said a
U.S. intelligence official. “You cannot underestimate the importance of being able to rely on the Europeans to pass on information, or to include us in investigations.”

The American diplomat and the intelligence official both spoke on condition of anonymity because they had not been specifically authorized by the Bush administration to discuss policy aspects of the London blast.

In the past year, however, tensions have flared on precisely that topic between American and European law enforcement and intelligence agencies. European officials say the rift has been caused partly by a suspicion that some intelligence before the Iraq war was politically manipulated. Other causes include complaints about the uncertain legal status of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and the alleged U.S. practice of "rendition," in which terror suspects are sent to nations like Egypt and Pakistan, where torture is a regular part of interrogation.

“There are some areas of resistance and some limitations, after all, because of the public outcry over Guantanamo and the general sense that the U.S. is making its own rules on these things,” says Michael Emerson, a specialist on U.S.-European relations at the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels, Belgium.

Anger at U.S. actions
Last month, an Italian prosecutor issued an arrest warrant for 13 American citizens — described as CIA agents by the Italian government — who allegedly kidnapped an Islamic cleric, Osama Mustafa Hassan, and transporting him to Egypt to be interrogated. Italian media have reported that Hassan was abducted in Milan in 2003 while he was under joint Italian-U.S. surveillance, and then driven to the U.S. airbase at Aviano, north of Venice, and flown via Germany to Egypt. The imam called his family in Italy after his release and claimed he was subjected to electric shocks and other torture during his detention.

There is no way of confirming his story, and U.S. officials have refused to comment on rendition. But, like the legal limbo and abuse claims of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, rendition has become a major source of friction between U.S. and European law enforcement agencies.

Another hurdle to a solid alliance with the United States is the fractured nature of the European Union itself. Its 25 member states occasionally act as the diplomatic superpower they strive to be, but more often they respond to requests for help on a national level. In the case of the Iraq war, the EU was fairly evenly divided into nations that backed the U.S.-led invasion and those that strenuously opposed it.

Iraq remains hugely divisive
Just six days before the U.S. attacked, a NATO-Russia counterterrorism conference examined these difficulties and officials from all 27 participating countries agreed that the current hodge-podge of laws and procedures needed reform.

The Iraq war remains a hugely divisive issue, however, with polls in Europe showing as much opposition as ever to American actions there. The fact that the London bombings followed attacks last year in Spain, another country that had sent troops to Iraq, has caused nervousness in many countries that supported the U.S.-led war.

"The center of gravity in the war with al-Qaida is now Iraq and so of course it is hard to separate these events," says Radek Sikorski, a former Polish deputy defense minister now at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "But if the purpose of attacking London was to deprive the United States of allies in Iraq, than the terrorists definitely chose the wrong target. Britain is not a wobbly ally. And they've basically confirmed that the American way of combating terrorism — a forward-leaning way — is probably the right way."

Still, in Warsaw, Copenhagen, Rome, Kiev and The Hague — all capitals of countries that sent troops to Iraq — political leaders are trying to reassure fearful constituents that their decision to answer America’s call in 2002 has not doomed them to similar attacks. All of these nations have announced plans to withdraw their forces. Poland, which has the largest contingent, some 1,500 strong, has said its troops will be home by the end of the year.

An opening?
The Bush administration believes the revulsion caused by the latest attacks may help convince some leaders that, Iraq aside, at least on broader issues of anti-terrorism there is no room for bickering right now. American law enforcement officials who attended an extraordinary summit called by Britain’s Scotland Yard this weekend are sure to have emphasized that point.

“The bombing, of course, gives a push to find ways to limit the problems and to make the relationships between law enforcement and intelligence more efficient,” said Emerson. “But this could be only a temporary thing, and there will still be those who will always look at the Iraq war as counter-productive and provocative.”

Still, the administration has gone out of its way in recent days to emphasize cooperation between U.S. and European agencies, and officials on both sides of the Atlantic appear to agree that intelligence and law enforcement cooperation needs to be quarantined from political strains over the Iraq war. Just last week, France’s defense minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, told French television that collaboration between Paris and Washington had averted several attacks, though she would not provide details.

"On both sides of the Atlantic, we are very pleased with the quality of this cooperation that has certainly avoided a certain number of catastrophes and that certainly will continue to do so in the future," Alliot-Marie said.

"This should help Europeans remember that they we are being attacked, too," Sikorski said. "But the most important lesson here is that, even in Britain, which has Mi-5 and a Prevention of Terrorism Act stricter than the Patriot Act, the terrorists got through. Sometimes cooperation and vigilance is just not enough."