THE massive American and Western involvement in the Gulf conflict makes it easy to overlook the fact that the region is also witnessing by far the most important inter-Arab war of modern times. All the major Middle East conflicts in recent decades have been between the Arabs and Israel. The exception was the 1980-88 Gulf war between Arab Iraq and Persian Iran.
Civil wars, such as those in Yemen and Lebanon, have seen other Arab nations involved on different sides. There have also been bilateral clashes or border skirmishes, such as those between Algeria and Morocco, Saudi Arabia and South Yemen, and the Palestine Liberation Organization and King Hussein's forces in Jordan in 1970.
But now, major Arab nations are set squarely against one another in a conflict at the very heart of the Arab world. Major issues such as Palestine, Islam, and the struggle between rich and poor, are caught up in a contest that will bring major changes to the region.
``We've never had anything like this before,'' says an Arab observer. ``It is bigger than Kuwait now. There's been nothing of this scope or dimension in the past. Everything has been turned upside down.''
``It's the first time that Arab countries have been engaged in such a clear-cut military confrontation, in an official, openly declared way,'' agrees another. ``It is definitely the first time anything has happened which will leave such deep and great consequences, opening up the area to such big possibilities.''
``Twenty-five years of change are concentrated in this conflict,'' he adds. ``This is what gives the Iraqi stand this notion of struggle, rather than just a fight over Kuwait.''
So far, Western forces have done the bulk of the fighting. But Saudi and Kuwaiti pilots have been involved in bombing attacks. Saudi and other Gulf forces were engaged in the battle to dislodge Iraqi troops from the Saudi town of Khafji. Syrian forces also clashed with an Iraqi unit.
But beneath the hostilities, there are signs of a mortal struggle between Arab regimes. Should Saddam Hussein's regime survive, the region seems likely to be caught up in a struggle of subversion and destabilization.
From the start of the conflict, Saddam has set his sights clearly on the overthrow of the Saudi monarch, King Fahd, and his ruling al-Saud clan. Many times daily, Baghdad Radio calls for the ``liberation'' of the Islamic holy places, which it accuses King Fahd of desecrating by inviting in the ``infidels.''
``The traitor Fahd should know that the Iraqis will not be after him alone, but will track down every member of his family until the last trace of this evil Jewish family sullying the Arab land and holy places is uprooted,'' Baghdad Radio said Feb. 1.
On Jan. 21, Baghdad announced the abrogation of all treaties with the kingdom, including a nonaggression pact Iraq had initiated only two years earlier. In a Foreign Ministry statement on Feb. 6, Iraq broke off diplomatic ties with both Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and called on ``militant nationalist forces'' in those countries to ``confront these two agent regimes.''
Baghdad is also sponsoring a new ``national front for the unification of the Arabian Peninsula,'' the declared aim of which is the ``liberation of the Arab land from aggression and treason'' - Iraqi code words for the Western ``infidels'' and those Arab leaders cooperating with them.
Responding to the threat, the Saudi Interior Ministry on Feb. 4 offered financial rewards to members of the public helping to foil attempts against security. It warned of dire consequences - death or amputation - for anyone involved in such actions. Iraq has officially decreed that anyone who dies in carrying out attacks on coalition (including Saudi) interests will be declared a ``martyr of the mother of battles,'' entitling his dependents to a state pension.
All Iraq's diatribes have so far resulted only in one shooting attack (on a bus in Jiddah). But if the conflict ends with Saddam still in power, few observers doubt that the attempts to shake the Saudi regime will intensify.
Along with Fahd, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak is singled out for Baghdad's daily vituperation, though attempts to incite subversion are less strident.
Iraq, however, has yet to focus much propaganda on Syria, despite the Syrian troop commitment to Saudi Arabia and decades of hostility between Baghdad and Damascus. Baghdad may not want to risk opening up another front, observers say. But that has not stopped Iraq from backing elements committed to the overthrow of President Hafez al-Assad's regime. Adnan Saaduddin, the leader of the Syrian branch of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, is in Baghdad where he and others have set up a ``national front for the salvation of Syria.'' Its declared goal is to ``liberate Syria from its sectarian regime and restore its Arab nationalist role.''
As the struggle for survival has intensified, the battle lines between the Arabs have hardened. Syria has called on the Iraqi Army and people to assassinate Saddam. On the other side, King Hussein has signaled Jordan's growing alignment with Iraq, as have Palestinian factions.
These same lines seem set to dominate a new Arab cold war if Saddam survives as the focal point for resistance to Israel and the West. If Saddam is brought down, the consequences are harder to predict, because his defiance has taken on such symbolic meaning for so many Arabs.
``It is not so much a question of what people are for, but of what they are against,'' explains a Palestinian. ``People are worried by the idea of Iraq being destroyed, because they will be left weaker than before against the people they regard as responsible for their plight.''