A realigned Mideast jolted Iraq's game plan

After US pushed Israel into the Wye agreement last month, Arab nations were more willing to stand up to Iraq.

When crisis in Iraq brought American forces to the brink of attack last February, there was no doubt where sympathy lay in most Arab countries. Jordan was rocked by pro-Saddam rallies; Palestinians across the West Bank and Gaza burned US and Israeli flags; many Persian Gulf states refused to assist US military forces.

But this time, Arab streets were largely quiet, and eight Arab countries - six from the Gulf plus Egypt and Syria - condemned Iraq's Oct. 31 decision to end work with United Nations weapons inspectors.

What changed? Across the region, analysts say, Iraq is seen as itself sparking the latest crisis, which subsided over the weekend when Saddam Hussein backed down. But a crucial element seems to have been the US push on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process at Wye River, Md., last month.

Washington was widely seen to have strong-armed Israel into signing the deal, and that effort has reduced anti-American sentiment. It may have also paved the way for official statements critical of Iraq, without risking a violent popular backlash.

"Those countries believe that Iraq started this crisis now, and the decision was influenced by the regional developments," says Ibrahim Hamidi, the Syrian correspondent of London's Al-Hayat newspaper in Damascus.

But to many everyday Arabs, Saddam is popularly seen as a king or folk hero with the courage to thumb his nose at the West. By contrast, many Arabs resent the relationships their leaders have developed with the American government - a trade-off in which the US gains oil stability in return for controlling the military balance in the region.

Playing a different tune

In a subtle show of diplomatic defiance during the February crisis, both Syria and Egypt received Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohamed Said al-Sahaf. This time, the tune has been different. "The Americans were not playing a substantial role in the peace process before, but now they have Wye and it makes a difference," says Mr. Hamidi.

Though Syria has been critical of the Wye deal, attention may soon return to the Syria-Israel track of the peace process, which Israel broke off in February 1995. Syria surprised many during the 1991 Gulf War by joining the US-led coalition that ousted Iraqi troops from Kuwait.

"Last time, the peace process was really in a stagnant position ... so the feeling of animosity over the US supporting Israel isn't as strong as it was then," says Halla Mustafa, senior researcher at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "After eight years of this, the Iraqi regime has become very weak, and even the other states have become tired of it. If it were replaced by another regime, I don't think anyone here would miss it."

In the Palestinian territories, there have been efforts to limit protests, and pro-Iraqi demonstrations have been nonexistent. As elsewhere, Palestinians have not lost sympathy with Iraqis, but Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has told police and top political activists that this is not a good time for such public displays.

Starting this week, Palestinians are about to reap the dividends of the Wye accord. Mr. Arafat is to begin gaining an additional 13 percent of West Bank land, the release of prisoners, and the opening of the first Palestinian airport.

So at the Deheishe Refugee Camp on the outskirts of Bethlehem, residents were told not to hold pro-Saddam protests that could lead to chants for Iraq to again fire Scud missiles at Israel, which Iraq did 39 times during the Gulf War.

"The Palestinian Authority is preventing the demonstrations," says Abdullah Shuaneh, who sells fruit and vegetables at a windowless, cement-block store inside the camp. "The Palestinian police are forbidding it. If they didn't, of course there would be protests."

Palestinian leaders confirmed reports that Mr Arafat's police have told activists to refrain from pro-Iraqi demonstrations. "It's not a good idea right now," says Marwan Bargouthi, the West Bank leader of Fatah, Arafat's political party. "The Palestinians are busy with themselves now."

More pieces of the puzzle

Elsewhere in the region, Jordan presents a special case. King Hussein was an important player in the signing of the Wye accord, and in both this crisis and February, Jordan forbade pro-Iraq protests. During the February crisis, however, riots did break out, and during the Gulf War Jordan did not join the US-led alliance - in part because the majority of Palestinians in Jordan strongly back Iraq.

And in Kuwait, which was freed from Iraqi occupation by US forces, there is rarely any opposition to any hard-line American policy toward Iraq.

But elsewhere, the Wye deal has adjusted political thinking. "Very definitely, the Wye agreement puts the US in a better light and makes it easier for these states to stand up against Iraq," says a Western diplomat in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which condemned Iraq and reportedly has been more helpful in deploying US forces during the latest crisis.

Across the desert kingdom in Jeddah, though, other elements of American policy have not been forgotten, and a sharp distinction is made between the Iraqi people and their leadership.

"We agree that Saddam Hussein has put his people through such an ordeal," says Khaled al-Maeena, editor of the English-language Arab Times. "But the Iraqis are suffering, and everybody wants an end to this drama."

"Why is the US pushing so hard for Iraq to comply with UN Security Council resolutions, and not ones that apply to Israel [to pull out of] south Lebanon and the occupied territories?" Mr. al-Maeena asks, raising a common question that - despite Saddam Hussein's changing map - Arabs raised last February, too.

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