Surprise Iraq plan may help US in Middle East

President Carter's bid for an anti-Soviet alignment in the Middle East may have received a boost of sorts from the unlikeliest of allies -- the vocally anti-American regime in Iraq.

The Iraqis are not about to consider an open military alliance with the United States. Indeed, in the present regional context, not even patently pro-Western states such as Saudi Arabia seem prepared to go that far.

But Iraq's current campaign for a pan-Arab charter for the 1980s -- despite its "anti-imperialist" packaging -- is seen by veteran Arab analysts here as something of a boost for the Americans.

Iraqi strong man Saddam Hussein unveiled the proposal Feb. 8 on the heels of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and subsequent US efforts to patch together at least a loose alliance of anti-Soviet forces in the region.

On paper, President Hussein is calling for a militantly "nonaligned" Arab world, rejecting the "military presence" of either superpower.

But he clearly envisions Iraq, one of the richest and most powerful of the Arab oil states, as the region's new fulcrum. And Iraq's priorities are essentially anti-Soviet, encouraged by Mr. Hussein's longtime fear of subversion by the local, pro-Soviet Communist Party.

"In the long run, the proposed charter seems intended as primarily anticommunist," one Arab diplomat in Beirut commented. "Thus, practically, it stands to benefit the West -- or at least coincide with Western and American interests."

Perhaps one of the greatest problems with the scheme lies within Iraq, itself. For if Mr. Hussein steers one of the most powerful of Arab regimes, it also seems one of the most precarious. He faces potential threats from the Communists, from Kurdish separatists in the north, and from a restive Shiite Muslim majority inspired by revolution next door in Iran.

The implications are ironic, to say the least. As one analyst put it, "Logically, the Americans could actually find themselves wishing long life to an [Iraqi] Arab regime that has not exactly been ebullient in support of the Americans."

Indeed, although Iraq looks increasingly to the West for imported technology, Mr. Hussein thus far has rejected any renewal of diplomatic relations with Washington -- relations that were cut over US support for Israel in the 1967 Middle East war. He regularly attacks US "imperialism" and misses few opportunities for a public snub of the Americans.

Some recent news reports, however, have predicted Iraq-American relations would be resumed and that President Hussein would visit the United States later this year. Arab diplomats maintain that the Iraqi leader's fundamental concern is about the Soviet Union -- notwithstanding Iraqi purchases of sophisticated weaponry from the Kremlin.

These diplomats argue that it is no coincidence that Mr. Hussein's charter proposal came as he was spearheading Arab rejection of Moscow's invasion of Afghanistan. Nor, they say, is it mere happenstance that the proposal coincided with Mr. Hussein's most vitriolic verbal assault yet on his own Communists.

The Iraqi leader, who has sanctioned a series of executions of alleged Communist plotters in recent years, denounced the party as conspirators in a "rotten, godless, renegade storm that has erupted over Iraq."

Exiled Iraqi opposition elements in Beirut told reporters that Mr. Hussein also had begun a new crackdown on the Communists and on other alleged conspirators against one of the Arab world's toughest regimes -- sanctioning, the opposition politicians maintain, "dozens" of executions since late last year.

The first Arab states to welcome President Hussein's proposed charter Feb. 10 were the relatively moderate regimes of Jordan and Kuwait.

The Beirut newspaper Al Liwa said a heartened Mr. Hussein now is planning to send envoys to "all" Arab states -- presumably including Egypt, which has been ostracized for its peace treaty with Israel -- in an effort to sell the project.

The last thing Arab diplomats expect is an Egyptian seal of approval. But it also is probably the last thing the Iraqis want, for at least two reasons:

First, Egyptian President Sadat seems open to the idea of a US military presence on his soil, precisely the response to the Afghanistan crisis that Iraq is rejecting.

Second, and more importantly, Mr. Hussein's latest policy proposal seems part of a longtime Iraqi campaign for regional primacy. Central to that goal is the continued isolation of Egypt.

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