Unlike 1990, Arab support for attacking Iraq is tepid

Egyptian officials yesterday focused on US role in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

There is a keen sense of déjà vu in Dick Cheney's tour of the Middle East to rally support against Iraq. But this is no replay of the mission he made as Defense secretary in 1990 when the US was building its mighty 28-nation coalition to liberate Kuwait from Iraq.

Today, no Arab state is rushing to support US-led military action. Unlike 12 years ago, Mr. Cheney can expect military support from no more than two or three countries, analysts say. "Kuwait will, the Turks will go along with it if they're given enough incentive," says Fred Halliday, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics.

On the other hand, no Arab leader is willing to launch a diplomatic initiative to save the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein. Simply put, Arab regimes are in a Catch-22 situation.

"The Arab leaders are being asked to go black or white, either to go against their own people or to go against the United States. They don't want to do either," says Said Aburish, a Palestinian author who has written a biography of Saddam Hussein. According to Mr. Aburish, the vice president is being told: "We don't like him [Hussein], we want him to go, but we cannot help you openly."

Iraq's invasion of Kuwait split the Arab world in 1990. Twelve of the Arab League's 21 members agreed to support the US-led coalition militarily, among them countries such as Egypt that had been close allies of Iraq. But Yemen, Jordan, Tunisia, and the PLO were among those that opposed military action. Libya kept a foot in both camps.

The late King Hussein of Jordan and the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, insisting on an Arab solution to the crisis, spearheaded peace initiatives, but were regarded as appeasers of the Iraqi leader by the West and the US's Gulf Arab allies. Both suffered diplomatic isolation and Gulf states cut off financial aid.

The political landscape of the region has changed dramatically in the past decade. Yemen, Jordan, and Mr. Arafat are taking a different approach this time.

Yemen recently agreed to allow in some US forces to root out Al Qaeda members from its territory. King Abdullah of Jordan has also been a staunch backer of the US's antiterror campaign. But he opposes an attack on Iraq. "A strike on Iraq will be disastrous for ... the region as a whole and will threaten the security and stability of the Middle East," said King Abdullah just before Cheney's Tuesday visit.

In Egypt yesterday, Cheney got a similar message. Most Arabs leaders say that an attack on Iraq will fuel anti-American

sentiment which is running high because of Washington's failure to curb Israel's attacks against the Palestinians. American diplomacy, they say, should focus on bringing peace to the Middle East rather than attempting to drum up support for a new war against Iraq.

"Two things are different this time [compared with 1990]. Not only has Iraq not invaded another country, but Arabs see Iraq suffering, the people suffering, the country on its knees," says Gerald Butt, Gulf editor of the authoritative Middle East Economic Survey. "The second thing is the Arab-Israeli problem is regarded as much more serious now than it was then. For both those reasons it is seen as inappropriate, to put it politely, that the US should be attacking Iraq at this time."

Now, as in 1990, American attempts to garner Arab support are complicated by accusations of double standards. Regional commentators point out that the US insists Iraq must comply with all UN resolutions, while Israel for decades has ignored others demanding its withdrawal from occupied Arab lands. The US, they add, also remains silent on Israel's nuclear stockpile while focusing solely on Iraq's suspected pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.

FROM most Arab countries, despite their reluctance to upset a superpower that some rely on for economic assistance or even military protection, Washington can expect little more than tacit public diplomatic support for the toppling of President Hussein. Privately, they'll acquiesce if it's done "quickly, and they can wake up in the morning and he's gone," Mr. Halliday says.

"All the statements made by Arab leaders about their opposition to military action against Iraq are for deception and domestic consumption," writes Abdelbari Atwan, editor of the Al-Quds al-Arabi, an Arab daily in London.

Baghdad, meanwhile, is playing its cards more astutely than it did in 1990 when the Iraqi leader's inflexibility made it difficult for even his sympathizers to help him. On the eve of Cheney's tour, Hussein dispatched his own envoy, Izzat Ibrahim, to Arab capitals. He has again been posturing as the champion of Palestinian rights by offering money to each family which loses a "martyr" in clashes with Israel.

Countries such as Syria, once a bitter enemy of Iraq and which sent troops to join the 1990 coalition, have since improved diplomatic and economic ties with Baghdad. Iran, Syria, and Libya all stand accused by the Bush administration of sponsoring terrorism (and in some cases, developing weapons of mass destruction). They have no desire to support a precedent for toppling an Arab regime.

What will replace Hussein's regime is another concern. Many commentators suspect the US would prefer another military strongman. None wants a destabilized or fragmented Iraq. Countries such as Syria and Iran appear to prefer a weak Hussein to having a US-backed regime next door. "And all the Saudis want is a strong leadership," says Mr. Butt. "If it comes by a democracy, so be it, although it is much more likely to be a dictatorship."

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