New York Times, December 18, 2001
KAIRO, Dec. 17 Most Arab governments share the American sentiment that removing Saddam Hussein could much improve the neighborhood. But there is little stomach for watching the United States take war to yet another Islamic nation.
Indeed, Arab governments believe that the American priority in the Middle East should be halting the bloodshed between the Israelis and the Palestinians rather than trying to rewrite the end of the Persian Gulf war more than a decade after President Hussein's government survived in Baghdad.
The absence of any confirmed evidence tying Iraq to either the Sept. 11 or anthrax attacks increases the difficulty of convincing Arabs that it is necessary to strike now. An American attack could well enhance the perception that the United States was making Muslims its target and thus unravel the reluctant Arab support for dismantling Osama bin Laden's network of terror.
"Most countries would like to see Saddam go," said one senior Egyptian official. "But attacking Iraq will not solve the problem of Saddam Hussein. It will just attract sympathy for him."
Many Arabs blame the United States for Palestinian deaths because Washington supplies weapons to Israel, and also see America as the prime mover behind the sanctions that have brought hardship to Iraqis. If more Iraqis die under American bombs, many in the region predict, radical Arabs will gain strength and American allies will feel undermined.
"It will add to the frustration and anger that is rampant in the Middle East," said Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League. "If you continue to pressure people and act regardless of the feelings of people, you shouldn't blame them if they oppose the United States."
People in the region draw a clear distinction between targeting the Taliban and targeting Mr. Hussein.
"The whole policy of the Taliban was opposed by the vast majority of Muslim and Arab countries," Mr. Moussa said, "so the cause of supporting bin Laden and so forth by the Afghan government was a strange cause, while the cause in Iraq is how to save the Iraqi people from the rigors of the sanctions, which has a very strong appeal in Arab public opinion."
The governments of American allies, notably Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, are already struggling to contain public outrage over their ties to Washington in light of its strong support for Israel.
For the last 14 months, television screens across the region have been filled nightly with images of Israeli soldiers gunning down Palestinian protesters.
So far, Arab governments have contained popular dissent largely by banning demonstrations. But they are wary of their domestic constituencies.
Senior officials in Egypt and Syria have warned of the dire consequences of attacking Iraq. In Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Abdullah, who runs the country, has made a public display of trying to distance Riyadh from Washington.
For two months he has held almost weekly sessions with different groups of leaders teachers, military officers, businessmen to explain how the Saud dynasty is trying to put pressure on the United States to help the Palestinians.
"The Saudis are trying to calm down their own internal audience," said Abdul Rahman al-Rashed, editor in chief of the London-based daily Al Sharq al Awsat. "They need to take a break from American adventures that lead to nothing."
Any attack on Iraq would require at least tacit approval from the Saudis, not to mention logistical and other military support. They quietly allowed the Americans to use the technologically advanced command and control center at Prince Sultan Air Base south of Riyadh for the attacks on Afghanistan. But it would be far more difficult to maintain such a low profile in combat with an Arab nation right next door.
For Egypt, a new coalition against Iraq could be fraught with danger. Discontent is mounting on all fronts the economy is in tatters, unemployment is high and unhappiness over the plight of the Palestinians is rising and the time seems ripe for Islamic movements to flourish.
"It comes out in indirect ways, in creating tension with Islamic forces," said Bassma Kodmani, a political analyst with the Ford Foundation, speaking of the worries of Arab governments about Islamic movements. "In the inability to confront these forces, political assassinations can happen, radicalization.
"You have to look at the long-term trends. It is the bin Ladens and the Afghan Arabs. It is becoming more and more difficult to manage."
The American track record on Iraq makes governments doubly wary. Right after a cease-fire ended the gulf war fighting in 1991, Kurds and Shiites responded to Washington's call for an uprising, which was brutally suppressed without any American military support.
American-led bombing throughout the 1990's, usually over quarrels about United Nations inspections of Iraqi weapons programs, and the sanctions helped Mr. Hussein to consolidate his power. He portrayed himself as Iraq's savior from foreign marauders and ensured that only his friends were allowed to violate sanctions.
Gen. Wafiq Sumarahi, the former head of Iraqi military intelligence who defected in 1994 and now lives in Europe, said he thought the 400,000- member armed forces might rebel if there were clear-cut statements from the outset that Mr. Hussein, and not the military, was the target.
"When you declare this intention clearly, this would make most of the commanders cooperate with this plan against Saddam," the general said. "But if you say you want to destroy the weapons of mass destruction and some targets within Iraq and Saddam would remain after that, not one of the military commanders would help."
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company