THE coming day or two will be a crucial period in the psychological tussle between Baghdad and Washington, say Western diplomats in the Middle East. The Iraqis have been trying to exploit the killing on Monday of at least 19 Palestinians by the Israeli security forces during riots in Jerusalem. They insist that the Palestinian problem and the Gulf crisis are interconnected.
The United States government, meanwhile, has broken with tradition and backed a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israel. The US action is an attempt to hold together an anti-Iraqi alliance of Arab states, Middle East analysts say.
``Baghdad now has Washington on the run,'' a diplomat comments. ``For the first time since the crisis started, the US looks like losing the initiative.'' ``I think,'' says Ibrahim Dakkak, head of an Arab think tank in East Jerusalem, ``that the desire of the Americans and of some states in the Arab world to focus on the Gulf issue, to the exclusion of the Palestinian problem, has now failed.''
Countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, and Morocco, which have committed their armies to Western efforts to oust Iraq from Kuwait, have been left with little choice but to agree with the sentiments expressed by Baghdad and its friends in the region over the past few days.
Al-Thawra, the newspaper of the ruling Iraqi Baath Party, said the killings in Jerusalem had ``put the UN Security Council to the test of shouldering its responsibilities toward what is happening in occupied Palestine.''
In Jordan, which has maintained its friendship with Iraq, the daily Al Dustour declared: ``What is required now is the same kind of UN resolutions as were adopted on the Gulf crisis complete with blockade, isolation, and embargo.''
The killing of the Palestinians prompted Egypt's ambassador to the UN to declare that ``foreign occupation is the sources of all ills in the Middle East.''
Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, the Kuwaiti foreign minister, said: ``We know full well the bitterness of the suffering of unarmed people.''
In mid-August, Iraq said it would consider the ``possible'' withdrawal of its forces from Kuwait if Israel first ended its occupation of Arab land. Although this proposal was rejected by most countries, over the past two weeks several world leaders, including President Bush, have stressed the need to pay urgent attention to the Arab-Israeli conflict once the Gulf crisis is over.
Even before Monday's killings, Arab diplomats had been suggesting that if a comprehensive structure for efforts toward peace throughout the Middle East could be constructed, it might provide President Saddam Hussein with a way of giving up Kuwait without losing face. The Iraqi leader could argue that the invasion had opened the door to solving the Palestinian problem.
But the outrage in the Arab world at the action of the Israeli police in Jerusalem has pushed developments further than countries aligned with Saudi Arabia would have wished, leaving them feeling distinctly uncomfortable.
``Saddam will reap some positive results because of the awkward position that the Saudis and the others find themselves in,'' Mr. Dakkak says. ``Being in an alliance with the United States, with Israel doing what it is to the Palestinians, does not leave them in a favorable light as far as Arab public opinion is concerned.''
The Iraqi president, Western diplomats say, can certainly expect his popularity on the streets of Arab cities to increase. In the eyes of millions of Arabs, it is Saddam and not Mr. Bush or anyone else who is resetting the agenda of the Middle East.
The Iraqi leader's argument that he brought the Palestinian issue back to the attention of the world by invading Kuwait and challenging the power of the West will be convincing to the vast majority of Arabs, regardless of their opinion of Saddam.
Even if the US manages to limit the damage from the Jerusalem killings sufficiently to keep the anti-Saddam bloc in the Arab world intact, the governments involved will have to live with simmering public resentment.
In an attack on those Arab countries that have sent military units to join the multinational force in the Gulf region, Al Quds, a Palestinian daily newspaper published in London, said ``the armies of the Arabs were too busy to protect Al Aqsa [mosque where Monday's trouble started] because they are protecting the oil wells.''
For the US and other countries leading the opposition to Iraq, the reawakening of the Palestinian problem is likely to make their task of resolving the crisis considerably more complicated.
``Things don't look good,'' a Western European diplomat in the Middle East says. ``From trying to sort out the Gulf crisis, we've suddenly got the whole Palestinian problem staring us in the face. Events have played right into the hands of Saddam.''