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Norway perplexed, worried after becoming al-Qaida target | (KRT) OSLO, Norway - So how did this high-minded country, recently described by a Sri Lankan official as "a nation of salmon-eaters turned international busybodies," wind up on al-Qaida's hit list?

In a tape broadcast last month on the al Jazeera television network, Ayman al Zawahri, Osama bin Laden's top lieutenant, called for Muslims to attack the usual suspects: America, England, Australia - and Norway, a country known for peacekeeping, human rights and solid opposition to the war in Iraq. The al-Qaida deputy targeted the countries' embassies, businesses and employees, presumably abroad.

Norwegian officials have taken his remarks seriously, temporarily closing embassies in Kenya and Ethiopia last week and stepping up security at oil and paint companies in the Persian Gulf. The Norwegian church in Kuwait took down its national flag.

Norwegians may never know what earned them a spot on the list of Crusaders. "You can't call al-Qaida and ask them, `Why us?' " said Mentz Amundsen, foreign affairs writer for the newspaper Dagbladet.

That has left them examining a host of possibilities, among them opposition to the Norwegians' role in seeking Middle East peace and resentment that a populist Norwegian party leader nominated President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Two possible causes are mentioned most frequently.

First, Norway joined the U.S.-led war on terrorism after Sept. 11 and sent special forces and a half dozen F-16 jets to Afghanistan. Zawahri lost his family in bombing raids over Tora Bora that fall. "Afghanistan was al-Qaida's nest; that might have been the real reason," Amundsen said.

Alternatively, for several months Norway has been threatening to investigate Mullah Krekar, the leader of the guerrilla group Ansar al Islam, which operated in northern Iraq and is suspected of cooperating with al-Qaida. But Amundsen isn't persuaded that this triggered the al-Qaida warning, given that Norway has sheltered the hard-line Muslim cleric and his family, provided him with legal counsel and refused a Jordanian extradition request.

More certain is the chill that the threat has sent over a country that's proud of its role in the world.

"It's not comfortable," said Shabana Rehman, a Pakistani-born stand-up comedienne in Oslo. "It could happen.

"Norwegians are not frightened enough. Maybe al-Qaida thought, `We should frighten them more.' "

But many Norwegians seemed more focused last week on the upcoming soccer match against Denmark than on any terrorist threat. "None of my Norwegian friends take it seriously," said Kamran F. Mohammed, a computer-science graduate student at the University of Oslo and a leader of the campus Muslim organization. "I don't think any of them sit in their homes thinking, `We might be next.' "

Rehman is one of many who figure al-Qaida was confused. Maybe bin Laden's organization meant Denmark, she said. The Danes backed the war against Saddam Hussein, while Norway insisted it was illegal. And in Denmark, the debate over Muslim integration into the mainstream society is conducted in a rougher tone than in this country of 4.5 million people.

Norway, Rehman said, "is a tolerant nation." So much so that it offers a greater target for comedy than terrorism:

"Let's say an Asian country dropped a bomb on Norway," she jokes in her act, which she performs wearing a burqa, the head-to-toe covering women wear in some Islamic cultures. "Instead of doing the natural thing - drop one back - these people would run to the nearest bookstore and buy a book about Oriental culture."

Jokes aside, Zawahri's remarks didn't help ease the polarization between the 70,000 or so Muslim immigrants and the Norwegian majority, which increased after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America, Mohammed said. After al-Qaida focused on Norway, media attention followed a Norwegian contractor who refused to build a garage for a Muslim client. "People supported him (the builder) and said they understood what he was doing," Mohammed said.

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services