As US talks up Iraq threat, Gulf states stifle a yawn

Analysts suggest that Saddam Hussein will pose a serious threat to Gulf oil states only if he is attacked first.

Inside the Habanos Bar at the Ritz-Carlton, the smiling sheikhs and chuckling US generals avoid disturbing one another as over-anxious Romanian waiters lop off the ends of their fresh Cuban cigars. The compassionate gaze of a uniformed Fidel Castro staring down from a portrait is a reminder of the awkwardness of fighting wars in strange places.

General Tommy Franks, the chief of US Central Command, dropped into the Ritz this week to stress to his Gulf Arab friends – including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait – the danger that Saddam Hussein poses to the region. But, based upon the noises made by some of his allies afterwards, General Franks still has some convincing to do.

"For Arab leaders and citizens there is a big difference between what Winston Churchill warned about Hitler's expansionism and George Bush is now warning about Saddam's alleged intentions," says Amr El-Kahky, an Egyptian political analyst and television correspondent at the groundbreaking Qatari cable news channel, Al Jazeera. "After all, Saddam has not started a new war, he has been beaten badly the last time he started one and he is now under intense scrutiny."

Fear of a frightened Saddam

What the Arab regimes fear most, say analysts, is a cornered Hussein, who, facing his own certain end with no option of personal survival, decides to lash out at his neighbors.

Western and Arab analysts say that Arab politicians and citizens see Hussein as a leader who will act within reason when the US and its allies apply deterrent pressure to keep him in his box. The prevailing Arab view is the equivalent of the way many in Washington once looked at the Soviet Union as a calculating foe, unwilling to make a move that would surely provoke massive retaliation.

The already intense world scrutiny of Iraq took on an ever-sharper focus yesterday. Mark Gwozdecky, a senior weapons inspector attached to the International Atomic Energy Agency, said in Vienna that the world cannot "give an authoritative guide yet" to what weapons of mass destruction Saddam Hussein does have, but that Gwozdecky's staff, who fill the ranks of the UN inspectors now likely headed for Baghdad, intend to start new inspections in Iraq within a matter of weeks.

Arab action

Arab nations, led by Saudi Arabia, which signaled a new willingness this past week to back UN-sanctioned military action against Iraq, are credited by Western diplomats with helping to force President Saddam Hussein into allowing the return of UN weapons inspectors.

Last week, when Saudi Arabia and tiny Qatar finally bowed to Washington's intentions, Baghdad stood on the precipice of losing its own battle to win more Arab support for the dropping of US-led economic sanctions and military threats. Then, early this week, Husseincaved into the idea of renewed UN inspections.

But the new readiness to back a UN action should not be confused with the notion that these same Arab countries now fear Iraq, says Charles Heyman, editor of the London-based Jane's World Armies.

"They don't feel that Saddam is a threat to them whatsoever," says Mr. Heyman, who returned last week from a tour of the Arab world. "I couldn't find any Arab anywhere [who] felt Saddam was a personal threat to them. They felt the real threat was a knock-on to any US-led attacks on Iraq. They are also worried about who will replace Saddam and whether it might turn out to be a fundamentalist regime. Basically, what they are saying is, 'better the devil we know than the one we don't.'"

Yet while White House legal council Gordon Grey told the BBC this week that Hussein was threatening the "annihilation of his neighbors," few officials or citizens here say they are endangered by the man the US government has designated as their region's bogeyman.

'No great threats'

The US Central Command, which is bolstering its presence in the Gulf, is leading US and Arab cooperative efforts to deal with the threats posed by another major war in the region. Tiny Qatar forms the nexus of its ongoing work.

Qatari Brig. Gen. Hamad Al Hinzab says, however, that the region faces "no great threats" despite rising fears in Washington that Saddam Hussein has bolstered his chemical weapons capabilities and is working to create a nuclear bomb.

Other Gulf officials say privately that they fear Hussein's chemical weapons potential, but only if it is unleashed on them in response to a US-led preemptive strike.

Herb Kelman, who directs the Center for Conflict Resolution at Harvard University, says that the apparent lack of fear in the Arab world doesn't mean that Saddam Hussein's neighbors trust him.

"The evidence that the Arabs are considering is that Saddam is something of a rational actor," says Mr. Kelman. "We see this even now with his decision to allow the weapons inspectors back in. Saddam may be evil, but he is probably not suicidal."

Kelman says that for a peaceful resolution to the tensions in the Gulf, Hussein must be provided with options, like permitting full inspections, rather than just the "regime change" that the Bush administration had been insisting on until recently until the president addressed the United Nations and made no direct mention of it.

Says Mr. El-Kahky, the Egyptian political reporter at the Al-Jazeera cable network: "Saddam can't do anything now and he knows he can't use his chemical weapons. If he does, he will die, too. He wants to cling to power and that is exactly what he will do."

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