WASHINGTON — Now that the US and its military allies have ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, they face what may be a tougher task: keeping war in the Gulf from reigniting. The old security arrangements for the region are gone and buried, say Middle East analysts. No longer will the conservative oil emirates depend on generous distributions of cash, plus whispered promises of support from America, to ensure their safety.
Instead, future Gulf regional security may rely on the twin pillars of more visible US support, plus a multinational Arab peacekeeping force. In fact, planning has already quietly begun on melding some of the Egyptian, Saudi, and Syrian units committed to Operation Desert Storm into a permanent regional force.
This is ``a military alliance that is emerging without noise,'' says one Arab diplomat in Washington.
One thing any new structure won't have to worry about for the near future is another Iraqi invasion. By eliminating as a fighting force virtually all Iraqi units in the Kuwaiti theater of operations, the US-led multinational force has effectively ended Saddam Hussein's offensive threat to his neighbors. President Bush called a cease-fire at midnight Thursday.
Iraq retains large numbers of soldiers that were never committed to the occupation of Kuwait, and thus escaped capture or destruction by the allies. But US military officials note that almost all Iraqi forces left north of the Tigris-Euphrates line were infantry units. The heavy armor needed for any future aggression was largely committed to Kuwait, and largely lost.
``There is not enough left for him to be an offensive regional threat,'' said Gen. Norman Schwarzkpf, commander of the coalition forces, earlier this week.
The intense interest in fashioning a postwar security structure stems from the fact that no such apparatus was in place to deal with Iraqi aggression against Kuwait. There was no Arab force to block the advance of Iraqi armies. US forces and equipment, meanwhile, had to be transferred half way around the world at great cost in time and money.
And those US forces are soon going to begin leaving. Pentagon officials have long said they're not interested in having the Persian Gulf become the new Korea, where large US forces have remained for decades to help enforce an uneasy peace.
In a meeting in Cairo last month representatives of eight Arab nations proposed the creation of a peacekeeping force comprised of Eyptian, Saudi, and Syrian troops. Arab sources speculate that the force might well supplant the military arm of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
The new force would be either an independent joint command or fall under the jurisdiction of a restructured Arab League.
Whatever the exact arrangements, Gulf security after the war will almost certainly have two new dimensions, many Arab and Western analysts predict.
One is closer military cooperation between Arab states and the West. Worried about the political risks of open cooperation, Arab governments have long relegated the US to a low-profile naval presence in the Gulf, supplemented in the 1970s by a small US headquarters base in Bahrain.
But the six-month military partnership required to defeat Saddam has changed that.
``Most Arab countries used to be allergic to any military cooperation with the US: either they did it secretly or they didn't do it at all,'' comments the Arab diplomat in Washington. ``But with close relations forged in the heat of battle between Washington and its Arab partners, these countries have now shed this allergy.''
Arab sources are quick to point out that there is still little support for a permanent ground-based US military presence in the region. In the aftermath of the crisis, however, Arab states are far more receptive to the idea of allowing the US to preposition large stocks of equipment and supplies and to rotate in forces needed to maintain them.
One of the lesser-known facts about the Gulf war is that the US had some prepositioned military stores in the Middle East, particularly in Oman. These stocks were small compared to the US Central Command's need, however.
Arab sources also speak approvingly of expanded base rights for the US in the Gulf as well as the kind of joint military exercises that have been the most visible manifestation of the US-Egyptian military relationship that developed after the 1979 Camp David treaty.
``It will be impractical in the immediate future not to expect a solid, ongoing coordination on many levels between the Americans and the Gulf states,'' says George Nader, editor of Middle East Insight magazine. ``There was always a low profile before. This time it's going to be done in an open but a responsible way.''
The other new departure in postwar security is likely to be closer cooperation with the Gulf's non-Arab state: Iran.
With half of the Gulf coastline and twice the population of the seven Arab Gulf states combined, Iran is a major force in the region. But relations with its Arab neighbors have been strained as, under the 12-year rule of the ayatollahs, Iran has sought to export its Islamic revolution and topple the conservative Arab monarchies across the Gulf.
Analysts say Iran will be content in the short term to entrust Gulf security to a multinational Arab force. But Iran is counting on having a larger voice in regional security affairs, especially since Egypt, a non-Gulf state, has been given a such a major role. In the interim the emphasis will be on confidence-building as Iran's rulers seek to demonstrate that their interventionist foreign policy is a thing of the past.
``Iran is not pushing for quick deals but they would eventually like to be part of the force,'' says George Nadar, who recently returned from Iran, where he discussed Gulf security issues with top government leaders. ``In the meantime they know they have to build trust.''
Even with better relations, Arab states may be reluctant to welcome Iran as a full partner in regional defense.
``Iran should be encouraged to become a part of the Middle East,'' says the Arab diplomat in Washington. ``They should not be part of the force but they should be given a specific role in the defense of the region.''
Another Arab diplomat says that to be acceptable to the Arab states. Iran's military contribution would have to part of a larger non-Arab Islamic contingent that would also have token representation from countries like Pakistan and Indonesia.
``It comes down to whether we want a Middle East order, or a new Arab order with the West as a shield,'' says the diplomat.
First of five articles. Monday: Economic issues facing the Gulf region.