Saddam finds few friends among Arab leaders

Despite sending out major appeals for support to his neighbors, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is finding that few are listening. Instead, the foreign ministers of at least 10 Arab states are expected to meet in Cairo Jan. 24 to discuss - among other things - the merits of removing him from power. Egypt and other moderate Arab states have begun to openly express support for toppling the Iraqi regime. Amid signals that much of the Arab world has grown weary with Saddam, the Iraqi leader has turned to condemning all of them as "traitors" to the Arab nation. Yet growing opposition toward Saddam is coupled with feelings of pity for the plight of the Iraqi people. Acting on this sentiment, Saudi Arabia has called for an easing of sanctions imposed after the 1991 Gulf War. Although many in the Arab world blame Saddam for his people's troubles, most states are reluctant to actively aid his overthrow out of fear for the precedent it could set in the Middle East. Area heavyweights, however, like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, all crave status as key players bringing stability to the region and isolating its perennial troublemaker. Yesterday, Iraq continued to challenge American and British enforcement of the "no-fly" zone in incidents over northern and southern Iraq, US officials say. They also say Saddam has almost doubled the number of surface-to-air missile batteries in the no-fly zones and is using them with increasing frequency to threaten pilots. But in what could be an attempt to back down from the fiery rhetoric of recent days, Saddam yesterday called for a dialogue with his Arab neighbors in solving Iraq's problems. Saddam's conciliatory overture comes at a time when patience with Saddam's on-again, off-again cooperation with the international community has worn paper thin. In addition to challenges in the no-fly zones, recent days have been marked by belligerent rhetoric toward Iraq's neighbors, a refusal ever to let United Nations weapons inspectors back into Iraq, and a decision by the Iraqi National Assembly not to recognize the nation's border with Kuwait, which Iraq invaded in August 1990. When the United States and Britain launched airstrikes against Iraq last month, Saddam hoped that compassion among average Arabs would translate into pressure on governments to take his side or at least play neutral. When this didn't happen, he allegedly called last week on citizens of neighboring Arab countries to "revolt ... and unseat those stooges, collaborators, throne dwarfs, and cowards" leading other nations in the region. In an escalating war of words, Iraq charged Saudi Arabia on Tuesday with betraying the Arab cause and collaborating with the United States. A day earlier, the daily Babel newspaper, owned by Saddam's son Uday, denounced Saudi Arabia's initiative to ease the embargo as a political maneuver aimed at defusing popular Arab rage over the December attacks. Some Middle East analysts say that Saddam's recalcitrance has been partly aimed at sowing divisions in the region - by rallying opposition groups that dislike the pro-American tilt of governments in places like Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. And there are deeper fears among moderate Arab governments that their own opposition movements - ranging from liberal democrats to fundamentalists - could heed Saddam's call. "This situation could lead to a real political disorder in the Gulf or the Middle East in the coming days or months," says Halla Mustafa, a senior researcher at the Al-Ahram Institute for Strategic Studies in Cairo. She says that although Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak took the lead in calling for the Iraqi people to overthrow Saddam, many Arab leaders will be reluctant to make the same call, out of fear it could come back to haunt them. "Egypt doesn't want to be left out from what is going on, but if the [Arab] leaders demand steps to topple the Iraqi regime, it will embarrass a lot of Arab regimes, because it could set a precedent," she says. "So then, what about Libya and what about Sudan? And Syria?" But Kuwaiti analyst Yaakub al Sharrah, a columnist for the Al-Rai Al-Aam newspaper, argued that if other countries don't aid Iraqi opposition groups, the groups won't be able to replace Saddam on their own. "I think it's a question of the Iraqi people themselves, to try to fight this man and try to get rid of him, but they need the support of the powers to do it," says Dr. Sharrah. "The whole Arab world is really changing now, especially after the last military hits by the American and British. Now a lot of Arabs are seeing that the Iraqi regime doesn't want peace and they're looking for more problems." "The question is how long we will leave this situation unsolved. The world should do something to change the map."

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