How Arabs, sensitive to Iraq, view strikes

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

One of the most deep-seated complaints in the Arab world about the bombing of Iraq last December was that it was a Muslim country being targeted by military forces of the largely Christian West.

But that doesn't mean there is now widespread support for the US-led bombing against Yugoslavia, where NATO's aim has been to protect Muslim Kosovar Albanians from atrocities at the hands of Christian Serbs.

"You have Arabs who accept and defend the Serb point of view because they have sympathy for Iraq," says Hassan Saleh al-Ansari, with the Qatar Center for Futuristic Studies, an independent think tank in Doha, Qatar. "They say no bombing, here or there; no sanctions, here or there."

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There is even one view gaining currency that involves a conspiracy theory. Some in Arab countries - from sheikhs to senior military officers - believe that the Serbian "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovo has been part of a cynical NATO plan all along.

"We in the Arab world can't get away from conspiracy theories," explains Mr. Ansari. "Of course people are sympathetic with the Muslims of Kosovo, but many are always suspicious of American motives, no matter what the US does. They can't comprehend the bigger picture."

No Arab countries have openly backed the raids, and few have condemned them. Saudi Prince Khaled bin Sultan, however, said in remarks published Wednesday by the Saudi Gazette, "We must encourage the Americans and their allies in NATO to stay the course. We say to them: Continue fighting the current injustice and do not allow the Serbian leader to come out of this battle a winner." In another high-profile move, Jordan - a US ally with strong ties to NATO - recalled its representative from Belgrade.

In Iraq, any religious sympathy has been subsumed by political comparisons. As far as Baghdad is concerned - and this view seems to echo widely - the NATO bombing is a further case of the United States making up its own rules about whose sovereignty is sacred, and whose isn't.

The result, Western diplomats and ranking British officials say, is that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic are consolidating ties that began in the early 1970s. Today - with Iraq eager to shoot down any allied plane patrolling the country's north and south no-fly zones, and with Yugoslavia anxious to protect itself from NATO airstrikes - air defense seems to have been a reason for renewing friendship.

"Serbia is now a key military ally for Iraq," Gen. Charles Guthrie, Britain's chief of defense staff, said last week. There has been a "continuous two-way flow of military and defense-industry delegations discussing primarily Iraqi military requirements." And there have been Serbian tours of Iraqi defense sites, "no doubt to learn tactics on how to down allied aircraft." Sources in Baghdad also say that there is a sense of relief that Kosovo has displaced Iraq as the focus of world attention. "Nobody says it, but the old Roman saying holds true," says one Western observer: " 'Your death is my life.' "

The NATO campaign has shaken up Mideast thinking in other ways. The fact that the United Nations Security Council has played no role has caused alarm, for example, and many Arabs draw a parallel between the Serbian "ethnic cleansing" and the fate of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees created since the founding of Israel 50 years ago.

"Arab concerns, be they of the man in the street or the foreign-ministry official, stem from their horrid experiences in Palestine and Iraq, and their continued banking on the moral weight of the UN," writes analyst George Hismeh, from Washington, in the Amman-based Jordan Times.

Ahmed Sid-Ahmed, a columnist for Egypt's semiofficial Al-Ahram newspaper, in Cairo, says that, even though Arabs support a separate state for Kosovar Albanians, this "cannot be reconciled with their firm opposition to the fragmentation of Iraq [to accommodate Iraq's minority Kurds]." But of almost more significance, he says, is that the Kosovo crisis has distracted the US from the collapsing Arab-Israeli peace process - and created a new standard for those, like Serbia, that haven't signed on to peace deals.

"Why does the US push so ferociously on this? Why the double standard, when a country like Israel, for example, is not implementing the Wye peace agreement?" Mr. Sid-Ahmed asks. "For seven years, this peace process has been hanging in the air, and not a word. Why?"

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