US attack on Iraq keeps ricocheting

Arab leaders said the bombing last Friday is hardening anti-US sentiments in the region.

Whatever US intentions were in bombing Iraq's command and control centers last Friday, one result is clear in the Arab world: greater support for the sanctions-hit country.

"If America is looking for a consensus policy on Iraq, it has just shot itself in the foot," says a Gulf Arab diplomat.

Apart from Israel, most governments in the Middle East, including key US allies - such as Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey - have strongly criticized the military action.

"This raid, which has killed a number of innocent civilians, has no justification, violates international law, and has provoked anger and resentment in the Arab world," says Esmat Abdel-Meguid, secretary-general of the 22-member Arab League, the regional organization of Arab states based in Cairo.

Arab leaders are acutely aware that popular sentiment in their countries is increasingly sympathetic to the long-suffering Iraqi people, if not Hussein personally, and hostile to the US because of its lenience toward Israel. Regional commentators are asking why the US and Britain are acting in the name of the no-fly zones, which have at best only dubious authority from the United Nations, while failing to press Israel to abide by UN resolutions calling for its withdrawal from occupied Arab lands.

Even on the streets of Saudi Arabia, the springboard for the liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi occupation 10 years ago, the reaction to the raids was angry. "Bush has uncovered his ugly face and all the hate and spite he has for the Arabs," says businessman Abdul-Aziz Mohammed al-Rafidi.

Iran, no friend of Hussein, who invaded the Islamic republic in 1980, denounced the strikes as "carnage" and accused Washington and London of a "warmongering, crisismaking policy."

The timing of the raids dismayed Arab capitals already jittery about the increased violence in the Holy Land following the landslide victory of the rightwing Ariel Sharon in Israeli elections for the premiership this month.

"We are rather incredulous at the timing of the strikes, which coincide with what seems to be the collapse of Arab-Israeli peacemaking, the election of a rightwing prime minister in Israel whose regard for Arab life is light, and the emergence of an Arab population that is more disillusioned about the future of the region than at any time in the past two decades," said the English-language Jordan Times.

Arab governments hoped the new US administration would focus on the explosive confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians. They regard that as a more serious threat to regional stability than an Iraq weakened by the decade-old embargo and boxed in by air exclusion zones.

"Unfortunately Iraq has over the last decade become a convenient punching bag for American presidents wanting to portray a tough image," said the Dubai-based Gulf News.

But while newspapers in many Western-backed Arab states, where media are to varying degrees controlled, were permitted to vent frustration with US policy, diplomats pointed out no government was about to start downgrading ties with Washington because of Iraq. Arab Gulf countries rely on American military muscle for protection while Egypt depends on US economic support.

Diplomats say it was partly to assuage domestic opinion inflamed by Israel's handling of the Palestinian intifada that many regional states have been allowing Baghdad to come in from the cold. Other incentives include Iraq's oil wealth and the business opportunities it offers for countries such as Syria and Egypt.

The decade-old US-led sanctions on Iraq are viewed as a bankrupt policy that has failed to punish Hussein's regime while punishing blameless Iraqis. And flights from the Arab world and beyond have landed frequently at Saddam International Airport since last fall carrying humanitarian aid and antisanctions campaigners. Yesterday, Iraq and Eqypt signed an accord to boost transportation links.

Iraq, which is calling for Arabs to stage a day of protest coinciding with the arrival Saturday of US Secretary of State Colin Powell, has portrayed the airstrikes as an unprovoked attack on an impoverished but resilient country that, however victimized, courageously refuses to bow to a bullying superpower.

Iraq has also warned that the Anglo-American muscle-flexing has damaged the atmosphere ahead of important talks with the UN called to settle the prolonged dispute over sanctions and its alleged weapons of mass destruction. Hopes of a solution were not high but, buoyed by the diplomatic fall-out from the air raids, Iraq may now be even more insistent that sanctions are lifted and less amenable to compromise on arms inspections.

Many observers are convinced that Hussein, his reportedly ailing health aside, is at his strongest for a decade. It was a point he highlighted recently by presiding over Iraq's biggest military parade since the 1991 Gulf War, in support of the Palestinians. It demonstrated that he had largely rebuilt his conventional war machine despite a decade of sanctions, Western analysts say.

On show were more than 1,000 Russian-made tanks, refurbished with spare parts purchased with the proceeds from illicit oil sales made outside the UN's oil-for-food program. Also displayed were sophisticated surface-to-air missiles, which Washington and London believe he hoped to use to down "infidel" aircraft patrolling over Iraq. From Baghdad's point of view, there would have been no better time for such a propaganda coup than this weekend, when the US celebrates the 10th anniversary of the allied liberation of Kuwait.

Few Arab commentators have accepted Washington's arguments that the raids were a "routine" operation to diminish the heightened Iraqi threat to American and British pilots. Conspiracy theories abound. Many suspect the primary aim was to stoke friction between Iraq and its neighbors Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in an attempt to scupper Baghdad's increasingly successful drive for regional rehabilitation.

For the moment, however, the regional consensus is that President Bush, described in one Iraqi newspaper as the "moron son" of Iraq's Gulf War nemesis, has only bolstered Saddam Hussein.

"I honestly wonder sometimes that the British and Americans are working for Saddam Hussein," says antisanctions British Labour parliamentarian George Galloway, "because the policy they are pursuing is boosting his standing around the world rather than reducing it."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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