US Fails to Enlist Arabs To Help Punish Saddam

In today's suspicious climate, the 1991 Gulf War coalition will be tough to reestablish.

Outside the Arab world, the crisis with Iraq may appear to be just another round of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

The model then was simple: Strongman Saddam Hussein sent Iraqi troops to invade oil-rich Kuwait in 1990. In response, the United States marshaled a broad Arab and Western military alliance that forced Iraq out.

But in today's crisis with Iraq - in which American members of United Nations disarmament teams have been barred from the country, monitoring cameras have been tampered with, and equipment crucial for Iraq to resume secret work on weapons of mass destruction has been hidden from inspectors' eyes - the equation is entirely different.

Today, the American threat of military action to enforce demands by the UN Security Council that Iraq fully dismantle its war machine is instead bringing contempt from the Arab world.

The reason is that Saddam Hussein has chosen a sensitive time - and perhaps an opportune one for him - to test US resolve in the Middle East.

American credibility in the region is already low, Arab analysts say, for several reasons: lack of progress in the Mideast peace process; strong US support for Israel, despite the apparent unwillingness of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to compromise for peace; and growing signs of US arrogance. This arrogance is seen to include arm-twisting Arab allies to go to an economic summit in Qatar this week that Israel will also attend. For many Arabs, hard-liners and moderates alike, any military strike against Iraq will simply confirm that American Mideast policy is too pro-Israel and vindictive toward them.

Yesterday, Iraq banned US arms inspectors from entering Iraqi sites for the seventh consecutive day and said its antiaircraft systems were on alert to shoot down American U-2 spy planes that have been used by the UN to monitor Iraq, the official Iraqi news agency said. The U-2s are scheduled to resume their flights today, at the same time the UN Security Council takes up the Iraq issue again.

"America has no right to make itself the policeman of the world that can raise up or put down any country it wants," says Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder of the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas. The sheikh was released from prison by Israel last month in a swap after Israeli agents were caught trying to assassinate Hamas leaders in Jordan.

Speaking in an interview at his graffiti-covered residence in Gaza, Sheikh Yassin said that Arab anger was caused by a US double standard with Israel. "What UN resolutions [to withdraw from occupied territory] has Israel implemented?" he asks, echoing a widely held Arab view. "Iraq is weak, but Israel is left with its nuclear bombs and chemical weapons. If you want justice, you must implement it everywhere."

This view is partly undermined by divisions among Arab states. Kuwait still views Iraq as the most significant threat to its existence, and therefore wants tough UN sanctions to continue forever. But other, more distant Arab regimes are looking at big potential profits if the sanctions are lifted.

Still, few Arabs have any illusions about Saddam Hussein himself. "We know that Saddam is a madman and foolish, but there is no need to bomb him," says Khaled al-Maeena, an influential Arab columnist in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. "The US is behaving like a child. Iraq is teasing it, but Iraq does not have the power to be a threat."

Military action, he adds, would be counterproductive, even if all diplomatic channels are exhausted. "If Iraq is attacked, no one is going to clap their hands for the Americans. It will only increase unhappiness [in the Mideast], because everyone knows that the US and Israel are one."

For US policymakers, that sentiment is creating a tough situation. Few here forget the US cruise missile attacks against air defense systems in southern Iraq in September 1996 to punish Saddam Hussein for reestablishing Iraqi control over a UN "haven" for Kurds in northern Iraq.

Even senior US military officials, active and retired, have noted the "disconnect" then that harmed US credibility and cast doubt upon the survival of the Gulf War alliance. Allies in the region were not consulted before the US missile strikes, and restoring trust has taken time.

Iraq has shown a longstanding and increasingly blatant reluctance to cooperate with the terms of the 1991 cease-fire and a diplomatic mission sent to Baghdad last week by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan appears to have failed. Nonetheless, any action against Iraq is likely to be a hard sell unless it is well thought out.

"We are facing an escalation that could end in armed conflict, with terrible suffering as a result," warns Jan Eliasson, part of the three-member UN mission that left the Iraqi capital empty-handed. "That's why the world should be very careful at the moment.... The temperature is rising again. There are still a few days left, and I hope that Iraq will ... withdraw their decision and create the conditions for a settlement of this problem."

Across the Arab world the crisis is not seen as Iraq vs. the UN, but Iraq vs. the US. "There is a strong feeling against what the US is doing, that they are very patient with Israel but very trigger happy with Iraq," says Salama Ahmed Salama, a columnist for the semiofficial Al-Ahram newspaper in Cairo. "This is very strong evidence that US policy in the Arab world is going in the wrong direction."

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