NICOSIA, CYPRUS — THE imposition by the United States, Britain, and France of an air-exclusion zone in southern Iraq has received only conditional support from most of the West's allies in the Middle East, Arab officials and Western diplomats say.
The eight days between the announcement in principle of the West's intentions and the delivery of the order to Iraq not to fly aircraft south of the 32nd parallel saw Western officials trying to secure the backing of Arab governments for their plan. Western diplomats in the Gulf admit that their efforts were only partly successful.
In the months before the outbreak of the war against Iraq, Egypt and all the Gulf states openly supported the Western allies and made their military facilities available to the coalition forces.
But on this occasion the response was, in the words of one British government official, "distinctly unenthusiastic." Only Kuwait was ready to declare publicly its support for the establishment of the "no fly" zone in Iraq.
Citing one example of the unwillingness of governments in the area to commit themselves publicly to the latest action against Iraq, British officials say they approached the Bahrain authorities to ask permission for Tornado warplanes to be stationed on the island, as they were during the Gulf war. The Bahrainis were reluctant to be seen providing such facilities and, the officials say, ducked the issue by simply failing to respond to the request.
"All the Gulf states are keen to keep their response to the latest developments as low-key as possible," a European diplomat in Saudi Arabia says.
The Western allies managed to secure the agreement of the Saudi government for the stationing of US, British, and French aircraft on its territory. But even Saudi Arabia, which provided the launching pad for the Western-led action against Iraq last year, felt obliged to take account of the strong popular opposition throughout the Arab world to the latest developments.
Several hours after the formal announcement of the plan Saudi radio quoted a "responsible source" as stressing the "desire of the kingdom to see [Iraq's] territorial integrity and the unity of its people maintained."
The broadcasting of this statement was interpreted by Arab diplomats in Cairo as proof that Western efforts to reassure the Gulf states over fears about the possible disintegration of Iraq had not entirely succeeded.
"It is not a case of us having given our approval," a senior government official in the Gulf says, "but rather that we have withdrawn conditionally our disapproval."
The condition is that the breakup of Iraq be avoided: Western diplomats in the Gulf say they have been told bluntly that if there is any sign that the unity of Iraq is under threat, then the backing given by states in the region will be withdrawn.
"Public and government opinion in the Gulf want to see the Iraqi people protected from Saddam Hussein's forces," one diplomat comments. "But they will not tolerate anything that will lead to the division of Iraq."
The main fear of the Gulf Arabs is that the fragmentation of Iraq would cause instability in the area. The creation of a Shiite mini-state in the south, it is argued, would enhance greatly the influence of Iran and increase the potential of it's exporting its revolutionary Islamic ideology.
Another concern felt by the Arab Gulf states, Western diplomats say, is related to what might happen to them if Saddam were able to survive the current pressures to oust him. "The feeling here," one diplomat said, "is that the West can always pull out and go home, while they have to live with him."
Iraq, which was well aware of the unease in the Arab world at the Western moves, responded defiantly to the imposition of the no-fly zone.
The Iraqi ambassador to the European Community, Zaid Haidar, said his government regarded the development as "net aggression against the independence, territorial integrity, sovereignty, and unity of the country."
The newspaper of the ruling Iraqi Baath Party, Al-Thawra, warned the West that it would face a jihad (holy war) against the exclusion zone.
Military analysts in both the Middle East and the West do not believe Iraq will challenge the no-fly ban. But they expect military operations on the ground against the Shiite community to continue.
The Gulf states worry that this will inevitably draw the West further into the quagmire of Iraq - a move which would be opposed by Arab governments and people alike.
Before the war with Iraq, the Gulf states were prepared to ignore accusations that they were acting as tools for the West by providing facilities for the coalition forces. This was because they were buttressed by the public support of a number of the powerful and influential countries in the region, including Egypt and Syria.
On this occasion Egypt has distanced itself from the Western action, while Syria has joined Jordan, Algeria, Libya, Yemen, and Sudan in condemning creation of the exclusion zone.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Musa said he hoped the ban on Iraqi flights would be temporary. Western officials say this sentiment is being expressed privately to them, too, by the governments in the Gulf, which feel vulnerable to pressures building up in the region.