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Ex-spy wages peace on terror in the Middle East
A former senior MI6 officer, Alistair Crooke, has achieved a historic first informal meeting in Beirut between satellite American security, military and diplomatic experts and significant figures from Arab and Muslim groups classified as banned terrorist groups in the USA.
The meeting, which aims to open up realistic dialogue between Western representatives and their avowed enemies in order to explore the potential for peace building in place of war and terror, was welcomed today by Christian peacemakers in the region.
Mr Crooke, who worked for the British security services for 30 years, has made a personal mission out of seeking to change the terms of the US-led ëwar on terrorí. His career brought him face-to-face with extremist groups across the world, and he is forthright in his disavowal of the tactics they use, he argues that failing to understand the roots and disaffection behind political violence is contributing to a spiral of deadly conflict in which there will be few winners and many losers.
The recent meeting in Beirut, documented by the BBC2 Newsnight programme yesterday, included senior retired US figures in lengthy conversation with representatives of the Hezbollah (formed in 1982) and Hamas (founded in 1987).
Both groups have been deeply involved in the longstanding Arab-Israeli standoff. Hamas has sponsored and publicised numerous ësuicide bombingsí alongside its political struggle for Palestinian statehood. Hezbollah waged a war against US and Israeli troops in Lebanon and has supported the controversial Syrian presence.
The American participants in the meeting stressed that they were mainly there to listen, and they have different assessments as to the value and impact of the process - as have different participants from armed and militant groups.
Mr Crookeís actions in promoting exchange among people otherwise dedicated to eliminating each other have been heavily criticised as ìunhelpful meddlingî by both the US right wing and supporters of the present Israeli government, who call him ìa tool of extremistsî.
But other expert observers, human rights activists and agencies involved in relief and development amid the bloodshed of the Middle East believe that risks have to be taken to break the ideological and military deadlocks that constantly thwart moves towards justice, peace and security.
ìThe label ëterroristí is often a barrier to deeper thought about the real causes and factors involved in conflictî, says Mr Crooke. He adds that even informal conversation along the lines he is promoting would have been illegal under US law ten months ago. But now it looks as if the American participants will escape prosecution. ìThatís real progressî, he says.
Analysts point towards a subtle but important change of mood and direction in US foreign relations under the new direction of Condoleezza Rice. Ironically Ms Rice has previously been seen as more allied with President Bushís conservative instincts than her moderate predecessor Colin Powell. But it is believed that her combination of forthrightness and pragmatism is winning trust for new positions among hardliners on all sides.
ìIt is important not to romanticise or overestimate small, fragile initiatives such as the Beirut meetingî, says Simon Barrow, research associate for the Christian think tank Ekklesia. ìNevertheless it offers a sign of genuine hope in the face of irreconcilable forces committed to the use of violence for political ends. Building political bridges and weakening the momentum towards armed conflict ñ whether through terror or war ñ is extremely important.î
Barrow claims that dialogue can only work in the longer run if connected to active reconciliation and monitoring initiatives - such as Christian Peacemaker Teams and the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Israel-Palestine. ìCrucially, governments and the UN also have to invest more in transitioning from peace-keeping to peace-building,î he says.
ìExperience clearly demonstrates that the difficult path away from both independent and state terror in places like Kenya, South Africa and northern Ireland has always dialogue among enemiesî, declares Barrow.
He adds: ìPoliticians with heavily vested interests will always oppose this publicly, but they know that there a no long term military solutions to the conflicts that risk tearing us all apart. Peace-building isnít idealistic, its tough realism. It represents a political shift towards genuine multilateral thinking.î