Arab Backlash More Likely

Perception grows that coalition aims have changed to destroying Iraq, protecting Israel

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

AS the Gulf war enters its third week, political forces are gathering strength in the Arab world that could threaten the solidarity of the anti-Iraq coalition. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's strongest support so far has come from the region's weakest states - Yemen and Jordan, plus the Palestine Liberation Organization. And there is little immediate prospect that Arab countries aligned with the United States against Iraq will bolt the coalition or break the embargo designed to strangle Iraq economically.

Even so, a growing number of Arab and even Western sources warn that emotions unleashed in the Arab world since the start of the war are putting strains on US allies in the region. Whether they culminate in defections from the coalition or in political coups largely depends on how long Saddam can stand up to the military might of the US-led coalition, these sources say.

``The more the Iraqis show they are capable of defending themselves, the stronger the forces affecting the political alliance against Iraq will be,'' says George Hawatmeh, editor of the Jordan Times. ``Each day the Iraqis fight, they get stronger and the coalition gets weaker.''

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``Even if it's a quick war, it will create such frustration that it will produce lasting animosity in the region,'' concurs a leading Egyptian intellectual. ``People will say, `Our colonizers have come in and hit again, using collaborators and mercenaries.'''

Arab attitudes have also been influenced by the close cooperation between the US and Israel following a week of Iraqi missile attacks on Tel Aviv and Haifa.

Although Israel has not retaliated, many Arabs now regard the Jewish state as a de facto member of the coalition. This view has reinforced a widespread Arab feeling that the US is fighting in the Gulf primarily to protect Israel.

Daily news coverage of coalition bombing raids over Iraq and rumors of mounting civilian casualties have had a profound effect in the Arab world.

They have rekindled deep resentments over the political impotence and economic underdevelopment that Arabs regard as the legacy of centuries of foreign domination. Throughout the Arab world, these resentments are being exploited by Arab nationalists and Muslim fundamentalists - as in Algeria. These groups now pose the greatest threat to Arab regimes arrayed against Iraq.

To win, Arab sources say, Saddam will not need primacy on the battlefield, but enough of the staying power he has already demonstrated to allow time for opposition forces in countries like Egypt to sweep away their anti-Iraqi governments.

Saddam, who knows the Arab mind far better than his American opponents, may thus be playing from a stronger hand than he has been credited with, they add.

``The Arab world is totally desperate and totally frustrated. This is a dangerous situation,'' a European diplomat here says.

Since the start of the war, a growing number of writers, intellectuals, trade unions, and professional groups have called on Arab states to quit the US-led coalition.

Pro-Iraqi sentiment is also increasingly evident in newspaper editorials and street protests.

Mass demonstrations in the five Maghreb countries of Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Morocco, and Mauritania, for example, have prompted worried Maghreb leaders to press for United Nations Security Council action to bring hostilities to an end.

Increasingly the fate of Arab leaders like Egypt's Anwar al-Sadat and Lebanon's Bashir Gemayel - both assassinated for dealing with Israel - are taken as reference points by Arabs who condemn collaboration with the Western forces in the Gulf region.

``In the long run, will these regimes pay for what they have done?'' asks Mustafa Harmaneh, a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Jordan, referring to Arab governments opposed to Iraq. ``Absolutely.''

Western analysts caution that threats to Arab members of the coalition may be exaggerated.

They point to animosity toward Iraq that has long existed in countries like Syria and Egypt, and to the clear economic and military benefits that would accrue from being on the winning side if Iraq is defeated.

Moreover, Syria's Hafez al-Assad, who weathered domestic criticism for siding with Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, has the internal security apparatus needed to cope with dissent.

In countries like Saudi Arabia, governments have even found support from Islamic clerics who cite the Koran to justify joining with foreign states to attack another Arab country.

Even so, there are signs of weakening. In Syria, Mr. Assad's position has been criticized publicly by leading writers and intellectuals. Even many government ministers, steeped in Assad's own pan-Arab Baathist ideology, are said to be guardedly critical of Assad for siding with the US. (See related story, Page 5.)

In Egypt, meanwhile, growing concern that a protracted ground war could lead to heavy Egyptian casualties - plus criticism from Islamic fundamentalists - has prompted President Hosni Mubarak to adopt a lower profile in defense of the anti-Iraq coalition.

As for the weight of clerical argument justifying attack, says a Jordanian source, ``the imams' [Islamic preachers'] arguments can't withstand public debate.''

Many Arabs concede that they are opposed to Saddam's dictatorial ways, his human rights record at home, and his conquest and occupation of Kuwait. But they say the US-led invasion has consigned the Iraqi leader's sins to irrelevance.

``As bad as the Kuwaiti human rights situation is, at the moment you cannot debate this. It is totally irrelevant,'' says Dr. Harmaneh.

Growing opposition to the war has been fueled by a perception that coalition aims have changed from protecting Saudi Arabia and liberating Kuwait to destroying Iraq militarily and politically.

If the 45,000 Egyptians attached to the allied force join in a ground war against Iraq, domestic opposition to Mubarak could mount dramatically, Egyptian sources say.

At the root of Arab support for Iraq is a conviction that Saddam, viewed in the West as a tyrant, is fighting to save the Arab world from another era of Western domination.

``Saddam has produced a social pride for Arabs they haven't felt since Nasser,'' says another Jordanian source, referring to former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Paradoxically, the Gulf crisis, which split the Arab world into pro- and anti-Iraq camps, has rekindled the very unifying force of pan-Arabism that was given its most compelling expression by Nasser in the 1950s and '60s.

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