CAIRO — REACTION in Egypt to recent American news reports that Washington is planning a military strike against Iraq was muted yesterday.
Senior Egyptian officials played down news reports claiming that the US sought to provoke a confrontation with Iraq over access for a United Nations inspection team in Baghdad.
"The rumors, the expectations in the area are high now. Everyone is expecting that some war is going to erupt, that an attack on Iraqi targets is going to take place," said presidential spokesman Mohamed Abdel Moniem.
"But the war is only of the press corps," he said. "Only the Kuwaitis were panicked."
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak met with the Kuwaiti leader, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah, in Kuwait on Sunday in a surprise addition to a planned visit to Oman. Mr. Abdel Moniem described President Mubarak's talks as "a show of solidarity," with the Kuwaiti people and "to show that nothing serious is going on."
He said Washington had not advised Cairo of any military plans. "We Egyptians are not special," Abdel Moniem said. "I don't think we have to know everything the Americans are doing. They are doing what they want. The question is are they going to do it or not?"
Other government sources echoed the spokesman's low-key reaction to reports of a plan to accelerate the downfall of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
"We're not aware of any particular plan," a Foreign Ministry source said, suggesting that a New York Times report on Sunday that said the US would provoke a confrontation with Saddam was part of an ongoing American strategy to oust the Iraqi leader.
When asked if Cairo would expect Washington to confer with it before undertaking direct military action, he replied: "They wouldn't need Egyptian participation nor would they necessarily need an Egyptian green light."
His comment highlighted the changed regional situation since August 1990, when Iraq's invasion of Kuwait prompted an unprecedented show of Arab solidarity. Under the leadership of Egypt and Syria, a majority of Arab countries supported the intervention of the American-led alliance to remove Iraqi invaders from Kuwait.
At the time, Egypt's role was considered crucial to overcome regional opposition to foreign intervention. Two years later, the Arab world appears almost disengaged from the continuing standoff between Iraq and the US.
Domestic concerns, the reemergence of Iran in Gulf politics, and the UN sanctions imposed against Libya in connection with the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 have all served as factors to turn Arab attention away from Iraq.
UN weapons experts completed a 10-day inspection mission in Iraq yesterday. Team leader Nikita Smidovich told reporters that the inspection had gone without incident and the team's mission was complete. He refused to name the site the 22 experts had visited during their five-hour inspection Monday.
Senior US administration sources, speaking without attribution to The New York Times, had earlier said plans included an escalating series of attacks aimed at grounding Iraq's Air Force and striking other military targets.
There has been no official reaction from Baghdad to a Monday report in the Times that the team would try to enter a ministry. Iraq banned searches of its ministry buildings by the teams, saying they constitute a violation of its sovereignty.
Iraqi newspapers reported yesterday, however, that Defense Minister Ali Hassan al-Majeed had called for the armed forces to be on the alert "to foil enemy schemes aimed at undermining the unity of the Iraqi people." The official press called President Bush a "war maniac" but made no mention of US reports that the UN weapons team would provoke a confrontation with Baghdad.
US television networks yesterday said the US, Britain, and France would order Iraq to end airplane and helicopter flights in the marshlands of southern Iraq. The move is aimed at protecting Muslim Shiite groups from air attack.
Earlier this month a UN-appointed investigator issued a report accusing Iraq of serious human rights violations in its crackdown on Shiite rebels and civilians sheltering them in the southern marshes.