This Time, Arabs Raise Eyebrows Even Higher Over US Attack on Iraq

Much of the Arab world reacted angrily to American missile attacks Sept. 3 against Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, with declarations that the intended US message was "overkill" that jeopardized Iraq's sovereignty and the stability of the Mideast.

Even Arab leaders closest to the United States have been lukewarm about the strikes against a fellow, if distrusted, Arab nation. The strikes were a response to the weekend advance by Iraqi troops into a US-protected Kurdish zone in northern Iraq.

Jordan - which signed a US-sponsored peace deal with Israel in 1994 and hosts Iraqi opposition leaders - refused to serve as a base for this US operation against Iraq. The move was reminiscent of Jordan's pro-Iraqi tilt during the 1991 Gulf war.

Strong support came from the tiny Arab emirate of Kuwait, which was occupied by Iraqi troops in 1990 and 1991. Kuwait expressed "full understanding" for the attack.

In Saudi Arabia, a staunch US ally that provided the launching pad for Operation Desert Storm during the Gulf war, reaction was mixed. But Saudi Arabia, along with Kuwait, agreed to continue logistics support for ongoing US operations in Iraq.

Arab analysts say the negative reaction on the street is strong, and that any moral high ground that the US capitalized on during the Gulf war, when it led a coalition of Western and Arab forces to expel Iraqi occupation troops from Kuwait, is not a part of this campaign.

And the strike coincides with increased Arab anxiety about Washington's commitment to being an impartial arbiter of the Mideast peace process, especially on the Israeli-Palestinian question.

"Now Iraq is seen as the victim of suffocating attacks and conditions from the US," says Mohamed el-Sayed Said of Cairo's Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

"The Americans don't care too much about reports of the suffering and hunger in Iraq caused by [United Nations] sanctions," he says. "Arabs don't have sympathy for Saddam Hussein, but there is a sense of overkill - that Iraq has had enough already, and that this is like killing someone more who is already dead."

The Arab League, which represents 22 Arab nations, denounced the attack as an "infringement of an Arab country's sovereignty ... and an interference in its internal affairs" that will "expose the region to factors of tension and instability."

Even France - a full partner in the US-led air operation to protect Kurdish areas in northern Iraq - said it could not pin down Saddam's violation. "We do not see that any resolutions of the UN were brought into question by Iraqi actions," said a French spokesman. "Iraq is on its own territory...."

Some Arab analysts believe that US domestic concerns - such as President Clinton's reelection bid - are behind American decisions to act, and that they are likely to backfire on the US in its Mideast policy and could cause an increase of terrorism against American targets.

"While we all share a distaste for Saddam Hussein and his regime, many see this as a question of two hegemonies at work: a small Iraqi one, and a big American one," says Rami Khouri, a Jordanian journalist and analyst in Amman. "Most people are upset because they see Iraq as weak and humiliated, while most of the Arab world is unable to do anything about it. Frustration is the greatest emotion."

But it may be too early to judge the full impact of the missile strikes, says Othman al-Rawaf, a political scientist at King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Still, he says, "As long as Saddam Hussein has been violating the UN arrangements, and if he is attacking civilian Kurds," then the US attack would be acceptable.

"A lot of people were surprised how Saddam could go ahead with his advance, without considering the consequences," Dr. al-Rawaf says.

The US missile strike comes at a time of increasing suspicion in the Mideast of American intentions toward the peace process. Until the May election of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Clinton administration worked hard to ensure the success of the process. But the hard-line policies of Mr. Netanyahu have gone largely unresponded to by Washington, causing many in the Arab world to question US sincerity and impartiality. The missile strikes may only add to such skepticism.

"People are ... very suspicious about US policy which had led to a de facto division of Iraq," says Makram Mohamed Ahmed, an analyst close to the leadership of Egypt.

"There is a double standard with the US," he says. "In Turkey, the Army has burned their [Kurdish] people out of their villages, and nobody speaks about them. But in Iraq the Americans see it differently."

The fact that one Iraqi Kurdish group, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, invited Iraqi forces to join in their fight against Kurdish rivals complicates the picture. Iraqi troops captured the Kurdish capital of Arbil and handed it to their Kurdish allies.

"Saddam didn't cross into northern Iraq by himself, he was requested to come by the Kurds," Mr. Ahmed said. "Saddam ... knows no peace, and Iraq will have no future with him. But the Americans will make it worse with their attacks."

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