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Iraq: Arab Governments' Silence On U.S. Attack Reflects Uneasiness

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

In contrast to European and Asian countries, which reacted almost instantly to today's first U.S. strikes on Iraq, most Arab governments have kept silent. In Cairo, the Arab League condemned the U.S.-led attack on Baghdad, but Algeria and Jordan were the only two countries to issue individual statements expressing their concerns at regional developments.

Prague, 21 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Appearing on Iraqi state television shortly after the first U.S. bombs and cruise missiles hit Baghdad, President Saddam Hussein denounced "American-Zionist crimes" against the "glorious Arab nation."

"Long live Iraq, long live jihad [holy struggle] and long live Palestine," said the Iraqi leader in conclusion to his 10-minute televised address.

That was Hussein's only attempt at calling for anything resembling Arab solidarity ahead of an imminent U.S.-led invasion.

Neil Partrick is a Middle East expert at the Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU), a London-based research institute affiliated with the "Economist" publication group. He reads Hussein's reference to Palestine as an attempt to mobilize support among the Arab public, rather than as a direct call to Arab governments.

"It is an appeal to public opinion, certainly," he said. "It is an issue, which is a touchstone, which can motivate some anger in the region. In a different way, we know that Osama bin Laden has, in [earlier] times, given emphasis to Palestine when his initial motivations were very much in terms of the American presence in the Saudi kingdom. So it is an issue which can be used quite cynically by players who wish to mobilize support in different ways."

For the Iraqi leader, targeting Arab public opinion might turn out to be more efficient than turning to Arab governments, most of which are not well-disposed toward his regime.

Analysts generally expect antiwar rallies and demonstrations to be staged throughout the Arab world after tomorrow's Friday prayers.

There was almost no immediate reaction from the Arab world to the U.S. strikes.

Belated comments were first aired nearly eight hours after the beginning of the missile attack on Baghdad, well after most European capitals had already reacted.

Speaking to reporters in Cairo, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa bemoaned what he said was a "sad day" for Arabs.

"It is a sad day for all Arabs that Iraq and its people should be subjected to a military strike, which will leave nothing standing and take no account of civilians, nor of the whole of Iraq," Moussa said ahead of talks with Miguel Angel Moratinos, the European Union's special envoy to the Middle East.

But individual Arab countries preferred to remain silent.

The only noticeable reaction came from Algiers, which expressed its "profound regret" at the start of the war. In comments broadcast on state radio, Algerian Foreign Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem maintained that Baghdad had collaborated with the United Nations weapons inspectors and called upon the UN Security Council to "preserve international order."

Hours later, Jordan issued a statement expressing its anxiety over the possible consequences of military strikes for the Iraqi people and the region.

Hassan Abu Taleb is the deputy director of the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. He tells our correspondent that Arab governments are anxiously watching developments in Iraq in the hope war will end quickly.

"Many, many Arab countries have adopted a kind of 'wait-and-see' approach," he said. "All of them, maybe, are hoping that this military operation will be finished quickly. We will see [in the future] what will happen in major Arab countries in the area."

By contrast to the Middle East region, reactions in non-Arab Muslim countries -- particularly in Asia -- were much stronger, with several governments condemning the U.S. attack as "illegal" and radical religious groups threatening to wage jihad against Washington and its British ally.

"The difficulty is on the part of a number of Arab countries which are obviously much closer to military action," said EIU analyst Partrick. "And also, in a number of instances, [they] either have a close relationship with the United States -- and therefore possibly a potential role in this military action of one kind or another -- or fear that they may be targeted themselves in subsequent phases or come under some pressure, whether it is political or military. So the position of a number of Arab countries is much more difficult than [that of] countries further afield."

In 1991, Arab countries largely contributed to the coalition Washington built up to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. For example, thousands of Syrian, Egyptian, and Moroccan soldiers helped U.S. troops bring the "Desert Storm" operation to a successful conclusion.

If most Arab governments this time oppose the use of force against Baghdad, they have failed to speak with one voice about the U.S.-led anti-Hussein campaign.

Some countries, like UN Security Council member Syria, have been openly hostile to war, siding with France, Germany, and Russia to reject U.S. plans.

While advocating a peaceful solution to the Iraq crisis, some of Baghdad's Arab neighbors -- such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, and other Gulf emirates -- have, by contrast, lent logistical support to Washington's war plans, even though none of them is committing troops to the U.S.-led coalition.

In a letter sent to the Arab League hours before the U.S. attack began, Kuwait justified its decision to allow U.S. and British troops to invade Iraq from its territory, saying its aim was to force Baghdad to abide by UN disarmament resolutions.

At an emergency Arab League summit held on 1 March in the Egyptian resort of Sharm al-Sheikh, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were castigated by a number of participants for actively cooperating with Washington over Iraq.

While exposing differences among Arab leaders, the summit also helped underscore fears of Washington's suspected wider goals in the region.

A few days before the Sharm al-Sheikh forum, U.S. President George W. Bush said a change of regime in Baghdad would help democratize the entire Middle East area, raising concerns that Washington might nurture ambitious plans to remodel the region's geopolitical balance.

Concerns resurfaced today in light of the first U.S. strikes on Baghdad. Al-Ahram Center Deputy Director Abu Taleb said, "We are worried about what will [happen] in Iraq, not because it could become an 'example of democracy' -- quote, unquote -- in the region, as the Americans have suggested, but because this country will be a bad example for us that we, [too,] can become subject to occupation, military action, and aggressive policies [decided] by the U.S. and [Britain]."

Echoing Taleb's comments, Arab League Deputy Secretary-General Said Kamal today said he feared the U.S. might turn its attention to other Arab countries after Hussein's regime is dealt with.

"After Iraq, one day it will be the turn of other Arab countries," Kamal told Agence France Presse in Cairo.