Can US Rely on Arabs vs. Iraq?

Fed up with the toll of West's sanctions on Iraq, but also with the tactics of Saddam, the Arab world struggles with its stand.

When the film "Air Force One" plays in theaters in Jordan, one line of dialogue really hits home. The Kazak hijacker finally corners the American president, played by Harrison Ford.

Referring to the 1991 Gulf War, in which a US-led coalition forced invading Iraqi troops to leave Kuwait - and free oil reserves - the hijacker shouts: "You killed 100,000 Iraqis just to save a nickel on a gallon of gas."

Hearing this charge, the largely Arab Jordanian audience bursts into applause.

A lot has changed since the Gulf War, when Jordan refused to join the coalition and people took to the streets in sympathy with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Jordan now gets US aid and military hardware.

Jordan also serves as one example of how the Arab world, like the United States, must now wrestle with the role of public opinion. Today, despite growing disgust based on the perception that UN sanctions have caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, there is also frustration with Saddam and his tactics.

The new crisis with Iraq over granting full access to UN weapons inspectors today threatens to lead to heavy American air strikes against Iraq.

Saddam refuses to allow experts into presidential and other "sensitive sites" to finish their job of dismantling Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Few believe that this will translate into Arab support for American military strikes on Iraq. Diplomats suggest that many Arabs are "fed up" with the Iraqi leader, while Jordanian analysts say that force will cause pro-Iraqi emotions to overcome any other argument.

Based on the size of the US and British armada and other US forces that have been put on alert in the Persian Gulf, Arab newspaper pundits here say they are bracing for the "second American-Arab War."

"It's very difficult for the Americans to get support," says Hani Hourani, the head of the Al-Urdun Al-Jadid Research Center in Amman. "Strikes will change the whole atmosphere, and renew the feeling of 1991 when people hated the US. This problem has not been solved in seven years, so it seems this is a weak [US] case. People are not sure you will be efficient enough to succeed this time."

Indications from Washington officials and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright during her current Mideast tour are that diplomatic efforts now face a dead end.

"When that amount of equipment is available in the Gulf, there is an urge to use it," says one Western diplomat. The Arab street reaction will depend on how the US "manages" its use of force. The end-game is still unknown, the diplomat adds: "There is a very limited agenda to get Iraq to comply with the resolutions, but [military strikes] may not be the best way to achieve it."

Though the UN Security Council is so far able to put up a show of unity against Iraq, China, Russia, and France are known to be against any military option. Despite Ms. Albright's visit, Paris rejects force because it "won't solve anything."

US allies are worried about two things, says a European envoy: "We don't know where all the weapons of mass destruction sites are [for accurate strikes], and military action will interrupt Iraq's cooperation with the UN Special Commission [weapons inspectors]," he says.

"So the paradox is that a strike would ease controls on Iraq, rather than tighten them," he adds. "The US say themselves that the disarmament teams have done more in seven years to rid Iraq of these weapons than the entire allied air campaign of the Gulf War."

Adding to the American dilemma is a longstanding Arab complaint that Iraq is forced to toe the line on UN resolutions while Israel, whose main backer is the US, has flouted several for decades. These include requirements to pull out of all of the West Bank, Gaza, and Golan Heights occupied in 1967, and to withdraw its forces from southern Lebanon.

"It is a question of credibility," says George Hawatmeh, editor of the English-language Jordan Times. "Israel has not implemented one piece on one UN Security Council resolution, and what has America done to make them do it?"

For Jordan, the risks of military action are particularly high. It receives all of its oil - 75,000 barrels a day - from Iraq at far below market value.

And though it has refused to allow its territory or airspace to be used for attacks against Iraq, relations with Iraq have soured in recent years.

In 1995, Jordan gave sanctuary to Hussein Kemal, Saddam Hussein's son-in-law who defected with secrets of many of Iraq's clandestine weapons programs. Most recently, Jordanians were shocked when four small-time Jordanian smugglers were hanged in Baghdad, despite King Hussein's personal intervention.

And last month there was a gun attack in Amman on the Iraqi embassy trade attach followed within days by the killing of eight people at a dinner party - including the Iraqi deputy ambassador - by what appeared to be professional assassins with Iraqi accents.

Leith Shbeilat, a Jordanian opposition figure twice imprisoned for personal attacks on the king's rule, further angered the authorities by meeting with Saddam Hussein late last month, and securing the release of 66 Jordanian prisoners - long a demand of King Hussein himself.

"The Americans know this is the last shot their allies will accept, and is maybe the last chance they will have," he says. "Jordanians are fully behind Iraq, and are very much ashamed what the government does, as a lackey to Israel and the US, while Israel steps all over UN resolutions. People are educated about this."

Still abiding in the Mideast is the belief that the US is all-powerful, says the Times's Mr. Hawatmeh. "A lot of people here believe in an American conspiracy to keep Saddam Hussein in power. If not, they say, why haven't they knocked him out?" he says.

"They don't want the Iraqi people to get hit again," he says. "But you would find a lot of people out there who would say 'OK' if you went after Saddam Hussein with a bullet."

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