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For Arabs, Iraq Crisis Showcased Flawed US Role

Sympathy for Iraqis outweighed fear of Saddam. Did US stand erode its clout?

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But the Clinton administration is also widely blamed, among Arabs, for not applying sufficient pressure to Israel to jump-start peace talks. The result has been that violence has waxed and waned in Palestinian territories, fueling anxiety elsewhere.

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Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat publicly appealed for Palestinians not to demonstrate for Iraq, though he sided with Saddam during the Gulf War.

Jordan's King Hussein also threw in his hat with the Iraqi leader in 1990, in part because of strong street support among half the population, who are Palestinian. Since then, Jordan has switched allegiances, signing a peace deal with Israel in 1994 and accepting American cash and military hardware.

President Clinton has declared Jordan a "special non-NATO ally," but unrest over the king's pro-West stance has made him vulnerable at home. Though pro-Iraq demonstrations were banned, Jordanians and Palestinians have clashed with riot police and the army.

"American policymakers are not aware of the state of uneasiness in the Middle East," says US-educated Mohammed Aziz Shukri, head of international law at Damascus University in Syria. If the US launched military attacks against Iraq now, he says, "America might as well wipe its name away as a superpower with any credibility in the Mideast."

Misperceptions on both sides about what constitutes a threat are deep. Though often dismissed by Western analysts, Arabs constantly refer to respect for Arab dignity, the need to be seen to never back down when threatened, and saving face.

Insignificant as these may sound, the debate in the US also took on a similar hue, with Republican leaders in Congress declaring that a peaceful solution meant that Mr. Clinton had "lost" his duel with Saddam.

Despite widespread views to the contrary around the Middle East, the Clinton administration has implied that, should Saddam violate treaties again, the US will find more friends in the region. "If we have to act militarily, it is my belief that we will have much greater international support for having gone this extra mile [through diplomacy]," Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said.

At the back of the minds of wary Gulf leaders is the Iraq crisis of August-September 1996. Iraqi troops crossed into northern Iraq, considered a "safe haven" for Kurds by the US. Gulf leaders say they were barely consulted before Clinton ordered missile attacks against air defense systems in southern Iraq.

This, say Gulf officials, was the first indication that the Gulf War coalition built by Mr. Bush was crumbling. This time, US allies Turkey, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia refused to let the US launch any attacks from their soil. Only Kuwait, reluctantly, agreed.

Analysts say the disconnect between Washington and the situation on the ground is starkly obvious, and means that any attack against Iraq might threaten long-term US interests in the region.

In Washington, the crisis over enforcing UN Security Council resolutions that require Iraq to destroy its weapons of mass destruction grew into a mission to save "our children and grandchildren," to use Clinton's words.

In the Middle East, there is general agreement on one thing: Few here - Arab and Western sources alike - felt that a credible endgame had been spelled out by the administration.