WASHINGTON — EGYPT, one of the United States' strongest allies in the Arab coalition arrayed against Iraq, has cautioned Washington that the Gulf war should be over by mid-March, the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. It has also warned the US against the total destruction of Iraq, according to Egyptian diplomats. Foreign Minister Esmat Abdel Meguid handed this message from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to President Bush in a meeting earlier this week, according to the sources.
Their briefings contain the first admission by an Arab government allied with the US that the intensive bombing and news of Iraqi civilian casualties are causing internal problems for regimes close to the US.
During the past week, intellectuals in the Arab world predicted that, as the war dragged on and the suffering of Iraqis became known, populations in even such anti-Iraq capitals as Cairo would express an outpouring of sympathy for Iraq. They explained that although the concept of Arab unity is an illusion, Arabs all over the region still aspire to it. There is a strong sense of Arab brotherhood on the grass-roots level, especially when an outsider is attacking an Arab country.
In addition, the battle has increasingly taken on the appearance of a conflict between a Western imperial state trying to impose its will on the region and a strong unbowing Arab leader. Resentful of centuries of foreign domination, Arabs instinctively identify with local leaders who try to repel such domination.
An Egyptian diplomat here says that increasingly, pro-Iraq popular sentiment is setting the tone in Algeria and Morocco and that it is a significant factor in Egypt as well, where left-wing politicians and Islamic fundamentalists are reaping the fruits.
``There's a certain sympathy with Iraq, especially after what we've seen on TV,'' the diplomat says. ``There's a widespread feeling against air raids hitting civilians.''
``We are under pressure from the street,'' says another official, who added that Mr. Mubarak dispatched Mr. Meguid because a high-level mission was more likely to ``have an effect.''
The official insists there is ``no possibility'' of Egypt, which has 35,000 troops in Saudi Arabia, leaving the Arab coalition, but the Meguid mission indicates differences between Egypt and the US.
Both sources stressed the following and indicated that Egyptian officials had brought them up in talks this week:
Although the US military is now speaking of a months-long war, the conflict should end well before the March 17 start of Ramadan, during which some Muslims make pilgrimages to the Saudi holy sites in Mecca and Medina.
The diplomat says that American attacks on Arabs - namely on Iraq - during the holy month would exacerbate anti-US and pro-Iraq sentiments among Arab peoples and make life more difficult for the regimes allied with the US. He did not explain how Egypt thought the US could bring a quicker end to the war.
The US should stop well short of the total destruction of Iraq's armed forces and the ``annihilation of Baghdad.'' Both would fuel pro-Iraq popular sentiment in the Arab world and lead to a ``dismemberment'' of Iraq in the postwar period, with Turkey, Syria, and Iran each trying to grab a piece.
Both sources say the Bush administration had informed Egypt of the emerging US-Soviet call for a cease-fire, which Cairo endorses because it will help to limit anti-US and pro-Iraq feeling in Egypt.
Egypt feels that an end to the war, with Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait, but Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein still in power, is acceptable.
``It won't be the same man,'' in the postwar period, says the diplomat, who implied that Egypt opposes the apparent new US goals of getting rid of Saddam and of destroying his military arsenal.