Arab opposition to a US-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein is growing so significantly that it may change the shape of potential US plans to launch an attack against Iraq, Western and Middle Eastern analysts say.
The idea is so generally abhorrent to leaders and civilians in the region that the US government will be pressed to sell the operation which is still on the drawing boards not as a US-led operation, but as an Iraqi opposition-led assault, the observers say.
Rather than fight the tide of Arab resistance to the idea of an invasion of Iraq, US political and military planners are already trying to work around it, say Western analysts.
"It would be a poor US military planner" who would be unprepared for a lack of support from Iraq's neighbors, says Dr. Gary Sick, the director of Columbia University's Mideast Institute. "That is why the US military will likely have at least five massive aircraft carriers in the region if and when it decides to attack," he says.
Mr. Sick says, however, that negative Arab opinions toward a US effort to overthrow Saddam Hussein are in a state of flux and could still harden or soften depending on how adept the Bush administration is at selling the idea.
Charles Heyman, editor of Jane's World Armies in London, says that compensating for a lack of Arab backing would likely involve the use of mobile US Marine units already stationed on US aircraft carriers in the Gulf to help seize the Iraqi port of Basra and use the two airports in that region to launch further attacks from within Iraq.
Since the invasion of Afghanistan, the US military has built up a substantial flotilla including an armed forces contingent of some 50,000 soldiers in the area of the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, the northern Red Sea, the Horn of Africa and Central Asia, according to Lt. Commander Matthew Klee with US Central Command in Florida.
Lieutenant Klee says that the US military did not discuss specifics about the number of heavy aircraft carriers, but Western defense analysts say they believe there are already five in the same area.
Military analysts suggest that marketing any attack as an effort by the Iraqi opposition is critical for winning regional support. This weekend, US officials including Vice President Dick Cheney met in Washington with representatives of six Iraqi opposition groups.
But support of Arab states for a new US assault on Iraq is far from assured. By contrast, Middle Eastern allies proved reliable for President George Bush Sr. during the last Gulf War in 1991. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Kuwait were all used as a launching pad for the assault which forced the Iraqi army to retreat.
But in today's Arab world, even so-called moderate Arab states are not yet on board for a second war against Iraq. Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar still host US forces and haven't categorically opposed a US attack on Iraq, but other Mideast states have been more outspoken. Indeed, there has been a groundswell of resistance to the idea In Saudi Arabia, where the kingdom's senior envoys have said that they will not allow Washington to use their soil to conduct similar military operations. Egypt and Syria have also expressed opposition to the targeting of Iraq.
Jordan and Yemen, both of whom sided with Iraq at the start of the war in 1991, are equally vociferous this time around in their disdain for the idea.
Nabil Osman, a senior adviser to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, insists that a US-led attack against Iraq could plunge the entire region into chaos and provide what he calls "ammunition to terrorists."
"The ongoing violence in Palestine and Israel has created one big headline in the region: It reads: 'Injustice!' and Washington should not ignore that," he says. "If the US wants to safeguard its own interests it must address these tensions first especially if it wants to be seen as an honest peace broker in the region."
Typical of the fears being expressed in the predominantly government-controlled Arab media are the words of Salama a Salama, a commentator for the Al Ahram newspaper in Cairo.
He writes in this week's edition that "there can be little doubt that Bush's war on Iraq is only the first stage of a dark era of American intervention in Arab affairs, tailor-made by the Pentagon and the CIA to suit Israeli interests and undertaken on the pretext of democratic reform of autocratic regimes."
Arab citizens, interviewed in the steamy streets of Cairo, invariably link their opposition to a US-led "regime change" in Iraq to their concerns in Palestine. "The US had no right to invade Iraq and try to further divide the Arab world's opinion over Palestine," says a Saudi businessman, Mohamed Addur Rehman.
Yet like many of his fellow Arab citizens, Mr. Rehman does not oppose a regime change from within. "If the US wants this, I refuse it, but if the Iraqis want this, I do support a change."
Jane's Charles Heyman believes that Washington increasingly aware of the opposition to its moves will not dare to ask for much more than a "nod and a wink" from allies if and when it moves ahead with its plans for a "regime change" in Iraq.
"Right now, it has to be said that there is an enormous amount of hot air opposing the regime change," he says. "At the heart of this is the conflict in Israel and Palestine. It is a real cancer. Everyone's evening news is full of Palestinians being shot by Israeli soldiers and dragged away.
"Just as there is growing sympathy for Palestinian victims, there is a strengthening empathy for the 'little guy' in downtown Baghdad, whom many Arabs expect could be the victim of an assault on Iraq. As long as it continues the US will probably never get moderate Arab world support for an invasion of Iraq."
In any case, the final plan of attack and the marketing of that plan is seen as a key by analysts to Washington's aims in Baghdad.
"No smoking gun has been presented yet but there is a strong sense that George W. Bush is already moving ahead with this," says a senior European diplomat in Cairo.
Sick thinks, however, that the US government has already begun to couch the "regime change" in terms of an Iraqi-led assault."Even the Saudis are quick to point out that they have no love for Saddam Hussein," he says. "That is what we are seeing going on right now with the overtures made towards the Iraqi opposition and support for their activities. If these forces organize themselves and then the US lends its support, the Arab world reaction could be quite different towards an invasion."
If this approach works, it could well prevent a backlash in the Arab world, he adds.
"There is the planning, the assault and then there is the day after," he says. "In my view, the day after is more problematic than overthrowing Saddam. If it is perceived in the Middle East that US has gone in unilaterally and killed however many Arab civilians, the repercussions could be severe."