After strikes, US draws fire from abroad

Arab countries examine timing. European governments question role of UN and NATO.

While the full extent to which they have jarred Saddam Hussein's grip on power and crippled his military is yet to be seen, the United States and Britain are running into a wall of international flak over their four-day pounding of Iraq.

From street protests in the Middle East to anger among indignant European governments and increased friction with Russia and China, Washington and London confront a difficult effort at diplomatic damage control.

Their success in limiting the fallout over the airstrikes that ended Saturday holds profound implications for their plans to keep Saddam "in his cage" through continued international isolation, stepped-up enforcement of UN economic sanctions, and military force.

But beyond the immediate issue of Iraq, the US and British attacks have also raised questions about the United Nations Security Council's ability to cooperate on future crises and the depth of cohesion within the European Union and NATO alliances.

Finally, also at issue is the future global influence of the US, a matter made even more uncertain by the impeachment of President Clinton and his looming trial in the Senate.

"This kind of attack at this point, coupled with the impeachment, certainly damaged our credibility," concedes a US official. "It creates a smell that harms the credibility of an action that the administration says ... was to maintain our credibility."

This was not the case in November, when the US won widespread backing to use military force against Iraq after Baghdad ended all cooperation with the UN's hunt for its weapons of mass destruction programs. A last-minute Iraqi vow to cooperate with UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) monitors prompted Clinton to cancel the attack as it was about to start.

The US insisted that it retained much of that backing for its decision to launch operation Desert Fox on Thursday after Iraq reneged on its pledge to cooperate.

But many experts, including some US officials, dispute that contention. They say the timing of operation Desert Fox, which coincided with the opening of the House debate on Clinton's impeachment, raised serious doubts in many countries about the motive despite the president's vehement denials of a connection.

"We all agree that Saddam is a monster ... and should be punished. But to do this bombing at this time ... was a bit too much to bear," asserts a Saudi Arabian political analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity. He says moderate Gulf Arab governments are deeply upset. "This has worsened the US's credibility problem," he says.

The US and Britain insist they were authorized by a succession of UN resolutions to launch operation Desert Fox. But their failure to consult with other Security Council members and NATO allies deepened alarm among allies and other states over what many feel is Washington's tendency to throw its weight around, some experts say.

"This was a largely unilateral action by the only country that really felt there was a sufficient cause to act at this time," says the US official. "It reduces the role of the UN regarding Iraq, but it also reduces the role of the Security Council in general in future crises."

Moreover, experts say, the attacks reinforced existing uncertainty over whether military force could achieve the US-British goals of compelling Iraq to resume cooperation with UNSCOM, degrade its weapons of mass destruction programs, and undermine Saddam power. Iraq's announcement that it will not accept UNSCOM's return and the uncertain political results of the bombing campaign have borne out those apprehensions.

Indeed, France, one of Iraq's main supporters, is using the fallout over the airstrikes to push for reviving the debate over lifting the UN sanctions imposed on Baghdad after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait. "We are now entering a new phase, a phase in which a genuine way out of the crisis will be sought," said French President Jacques Chirac.

Russia and China are expected to support a review of the sanctions, raising the prospect of new tensions with the US and Britain. Washington and London say they intend to tighten enforcement of the sanctions to prevent Saddam from reconstituting his military might.

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