CAIRO – It’s a moment of truth unlike any other. The UN weapons inspectors present a crucial report. The Security Council remains split: five to four against a US-backed resolution commonly seen as a war trigger, with six undecided. France, Russia, China (all three with veto power), plus Germany and Syria, are for more and tougher inspections. The US, the UK (both with veto powers), Spain and Bulgaria are ready for war. The undecided six are Pakistan, Chile, Guinea, Cameroon, Angola and Mexico. Nine votes – and no veto – still separate the world from a “sanctioned” war.

War, though, may be decided on a single word by Hans Blix, even as 10 million people prepare to protest around the world. Arabs meet in Cairo in desperation to find a peaceful way out. North Korea says that it is able to nuke California. Osama bin Laden, with an innate sense of drama, moves markets and provokes spinning frenzy just by reading a 16-minute message on an audiotape.

Saudi Arabia – supported by Egypt and Syria – bets everything on what some might define as a wishful thinking strategy: to bridge the abyss between America and Iraq by calling for more thorough inspections – like France, Germany and Russia – and at the same time creating conditions for Saddam Hussein to gradually step down. Diplomats say that the Saudis are at the stage of extracting guarantees from the Bush administration. They are also trying to engage Nelson Mandela as a mediator – something that the Bush administration would never accept: the Nobel prize winner recently criticized Bush as “muddled mind” and qualified Tony Blair as “the US foreign minister.” Mandela, anyway, is ready to go to Baghdad before the end of February along with fellow Nobel laureate Jimmy Carter on a joint mission to try to convince Saddam to do anything possible to avert war.

At the extraordinary summit of the Arab League’s foreign ministers on Sunday in Cairo, the Saudis will discuss their next move. Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou – currently holding the presidency of the European Union – will also attend. The diplomats’ last hope is that the Saudi proposal, mixed with the Franco-German proposal, could offer a way out to both Washington and Baghdad: “If the French, German and Russians maintain their anti-war position in the Security Council, this will give the Saudis the time and maneuvering space they have been trying to secure from the Americans,” says an Arab diplomat. Arab and European diplomatic efforts will reach fever pitch these next two weeks. The idea is that when the Security Council receives a third report from the arms inspectors on March 1, a definitive “peace plan” will be on the table. The Security Council, meanwhile, won’t stop. There will be a public meeting next Tuesday – demanded by the countries of the Non-Aligned Movement – and new consultations about the inspections the next day, demanded by Mexico and Chile. The Bush administration, facing opposition on every front, has decided not to oppose either demand. In the streets, up to 10 million people in up to 400 cities in 60 countries on five continents will be demonstrating on Saturday against the war – in peace rallies, in vigils, in marches, in parties, even in Antarctica, where dozens of scientists at a US base on the edge of the Ross Sea will protest on ice. Some countries will see their largest anti-war demonstrations ever. One million people are expected in London – a city where Heathrow Airport is protected by tanks from a hypothetical al-Qaeda Stinger missile, not one of Saddam’s Al Samud missiles. More than 200,000 people are expected in New York, and more than 100,000 in Paris, Berlin and Rome.

The organizers themselves are amazed by the depth and breadth of this civil society mobilization across the world, even before a war has started. According to a spokesman for ANSWER, a coalition of US peace groups which helped organize a march of 200,000 people last month in Washington: “This is unprecedented. Demonstrations only got this large against the Vietnam War at the height of the conflict, years after it started.” This “single largest day of protests in world history” – as the word in the street goes – could make a powerful case demonstrating how the US and UK governments are completely isolated by world opinion. The latest polls suggest the anti-war movement is likely to keep growing even if the US manages to impose a second resolution at the UN. Spanish and Dutch polls show that more than 70 percent now oppose even UN-mandated action, and more than 60 percent in Italy. Fifty-seven percent in a Forsa poll in Germany see the US “as a nation of warmongers.” Fifty-one percent in a Times poll in the UK see Tony Blair as a “US poodle.” Support for war even with a UN resolution is only 38 percent in Romania and 28 percent in Bulgaria, both European Union hopefuls.

Meanwhile, many disturbing questions are being asked – not only all over the Arab world, but also in Europe – about the latest bin Laden tape. It may not be classic bin Laden, but there’s also no doubt its timing helped the Bush administration to bolster its case against Saddam. Of course this plays to bin Laden’s advantage as well: the invasion of an Arab nation – Iraq – is about to destabilize many “apostate” rulers in the Middle East, fuel jihad on an unprecedented scale, and generate “hundreds of Osama bin Ladens,” according to famous former Saudi Arabian oil minister Sheikh Ahmed Yamani, who recently talked in Cairo about oil and war.

Egyptian author Tawfez el-Hakem wonders why Colin Powell switched to breaking-news mode even before Al Jazeera acknowledged that it had the new bin Laden tape. Al Jazeera journalists are forbidden to talk on the record about the affair. But el-Hakem managed to talk to some of them. He discovered that as early as Tuesday afternoon, the Al Jazeera newsroom in Doha, Qatar, was bombarded by phone calls from newsrooms all over the planet, but until nine in the evening the network refused to confirm that it had received a new bin Laden tape.

Hakem quotes a journalist, “We felt something was happening when the chairman of the board, Sheikh Hamid Bin Thamer al-Thani [a member of the Emir of Qatar’s family] arrived at the end of the afternoon.” Only after a meeting presided over by the sheikh with Al Jazeera director Mohamed Jassem al-Ali, chief editor Ibrahim Hilal and famous former Kabul correspondent Taysir Allouni, was it decided that bin Laden’s tape would be broadcast in the nightly news. It was Allouni who authenticated bin Laden’s voice: after all, he had met and interviewed him in Afghanistan. Of the full 16-minute audio, only an extract was broadcast. And curiously, according to Al Jazeera journalists, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher was right on cue to intervene live, saying “its obvious there are links and contacts between the Iraqi regime and al-Qaeda.” Everybody is puzzled. It could all amount to tremendous American pressure on Qatar, or it could be “cooperation” between the US and an emirate ally where the Pentagon stationed the ultra high-tech Central Command.

Bin Laden’s message, anyway, was very clear: “We also point out that whoever supported the United States, including the hypocrites of Iraq or the rulers of Arab countries, those who approved their actions and followed them in this crusade war by fighting with them or providing bases and administrative support, or any form of support, even by words, to kill the Muslims in Iraq, should know that they are apostates and outside the community of Muslims. It is permissible to spill their blood and take their property.” It’s enlightening to compare this radical message with the most recent one by Sheikh Abdel Aziz al-Sheikh, the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, and – unlike bin Laden – a certified theological authority: “The Islamic nation is confronted by many challenges put by its enemies … who wage war against Islam, its fundamentals, its principles, its values and its culture.”

If Middle Eastern regimes are bin Laden’s apostates, France and Germany, as it stands, are certainly Washington’s. This correspondent has insisted that a peaceful solution for the Iraqi crisis lies within Europe. France and Germany have learned the hard way. After five centuries of wars, including the uninterrupted war of 1914-1945, they have created the nucleus of a European Union with the same currency and the ultimate objective of adopting a common foreign policy. This is nothing less than revolutionary in terms of uniting ancient and proud nation-states, fierce rivals and different cultures. The European Union – still a work in progress, with undeniable flaws – is the first instance in history where nation-states abdicate their national sovereignty and join what can only be defined as a common project for a whole civilization.

This vision explains why everybody and his neighbor, from Turkey to the impoverished Eastern Europeans, are willing to do anything to join the club. It doesn’t require a trip to Brussels to learn that the European Union is fundamentally based on democracy, defense of human rights and civil liberties and the absolute impossibility of any member waging war on another member. By any standard, the EU is de facto a new emerging global power, but not capable of realizing its full potential before 2020. But the EU is not only about power: most of all it’s about consensus. As the whole world is watching, and voting “no,” this current version of Pax Americana is based on total monopoly of power, an explicit agenda that nobody in the Bush administration even cares to disguise. Pax Europa is based on consensus. Asia Times Online has been confirming with diplomats in Europe that the Bushites themselves provoked the strategic divide between the US and the core of the European Union. Again the numbers are clear: in NATO Europe public opinion is overwhelmingly against US foreign policy. This has nothing to do with anti-Americanism. Popular opinion in NATO member countries is more than 80 percent opposed – and even in Eastern European countries, 70 percent opposed – to a war not sanctioned by the UN Security Council.

The question until a few days ago used to be whether France will veto a US-UK second resolution authorizing war. The question now is whether the US-UK will veto a Franco-German-Russian resolution expanding the UN mandate. Asia Times Online has learned that according to the latest estimates in Brussels, the Security Council remains 11 to 4 in favor of a tougher UN mandate. This is also the will of public opinion demonstrated in practice all over the world this Saturday.

But the whole world may also know that the Bush administration doesn’t see it this way. It will attack Iraq. Maybe not in the beginning, but certainly before the end of March. With or without the UN. And whatever public opinion screams and shouts in any corner of the world. By going to war, at least the administration will finally be able to prove that the UN is irrelevant, the EU is irrelevant, NATO is irrelevant, we are all irrelevant.

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