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Arab states vent rising wrath

The Mideast crisis has prompted varied steps against Israel and US. A regional roundup.

By Philip SmuckerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor, Special to The Christian Science Monitor / April 22, 2002


Iraq won't sell oil to "the enemy." Egypt has cancelled all flights to Israel.

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Arab groups are starting to boycott American companies.

Driven by a rising anger in Middle Eastern streets, leaders of Arab states and Iran are trying out new – and old – strategies to show their opposition to the US and its support for Israel.

"Arab countries are throwing their collective back at these two nations," says Bahgat Korany, an Egyptian professor of international relations at the American University in Cairo.

Arab states, say political analysts, are seeing evidence of their worst fear: Israel's Ariel Sharon and US President George Bush increasingly seeing the world through the same "war on terror" lens. It's a perspective that deepens Israel's diplomatic isolation, and makes it difficult for the US to count on its Arab allies for a future strike against Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. These concerns were reinforced, they say, last Thursday when Mr. Bush referred to the Israeli leader, whom many Arabs consider a war criminal, as "a man of peace."

Clearly, Iraq is the greatest beneficiary of the current regional coalescing of support for Palestinians. But most Arab leaders have limited options when it comes to striking back at the US or Israel. So far, a survey of the region shows that most Arab leaders are expressing their dissatisfaction largely as a means of controlling and channeling the growing militancy in their own back yards.

Iraq and Iran

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is perhaps the one Arab leader who can smile with satisfaction at the crisis gripping the Middle East. Washington's plans to topple the Iraqi leader have been undermined by swelling resentment in the Arab world against the administration's pro-Israel stance.

Although Arab leaders distrust the Iraqi leader, they are in no mood to support a US-led drive to oust him. Iraq has made an effort to improve its ties with neighboring Arab states. At the Arab summit in Beirut last month, for example, Iraq made a public commitment to respect the sovereignty of Kuwait, which it invaded in 1990, and both countries pledged to improve bilateral relations.

Egypt and Bahrain moved last week to improve commercial ties with Iraq, while a Yemeni envoy delivered a "letter of support" to Mr. Hussein..

Boosting his pro-Palestinian credentials and irritating Washington, Hussein has donated up to $25,000 to relatives of Palestinian suicide bombers. On Friday, Baghdad pledged an additional $8.7 million to support the Palestinians in addition to some 6,000 tons of aid, which has already been delivered. Earlier this month, Hussein introduced a 30-day embargo on Iraqi oil exports, a move that has helped raise oil prices worldwide.

Although Iran (not an Arab state, but a big player in the region) has also called on all Muslim oil producing states to use the "oil weapon" in support of the Palestinian cause, it has not followed Iraq's lead. In fact, Iran, which along with Iraq and North Korea make up President Bush's "Axis of Evil," played a significant role in easing recent tensions along the Lebanon-Israel border. With Iranian-backed Hizbullah fighters attacking Israeli troops on an almost daily basis, Iran's foreign minister, Kamel Kharrazi, flew to Beirut and delivered a surprise call for restraint. The fighting ended two days later. Mr. Kharrazi's intervention in Lebanon provoked uproar in Tehran. Hardliners condemned the move, while moderates applauded Kharrazi's diplomacy.

"It was the Iranian moderates saying to the US 'we are the people in charge,' " says Farid Khazen, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut.

Egypt and Jordan

An announcement early this month that Egypt would sever all ties with Israel except those dealing with "helping the Palestinians," has had little real impact on relations. And when Syrian officials cried foul that Egypt, unlike its Arab brothers, still keeps a functioning Israeli embassy in its midst, Mr. Mubarak's rabidly loyal state press snapped that Syria's "boy president" – the tall, lanky 36-year-old Bashar Assad, who replaced his father as head of state in 2000 – shouldn't pretend to know anything about serious diplomacy.