The U.S.-led war with Iraq is generating deep divisions in the Arab world, but it appears to be helping efforts by the Persian Gulf Arab states to present a common front in regional crises.
Kuwait City, 21 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Here in Kuwait, the emirate and five other Gulf Arab states have deployed a joint force to help defend against Iraqi counterattacks prompted by the U.S. invasion.
Those counterattacks took the form of several Scud missiles launched into northern Kuwait yesterday. The missiles, apparently aimed at U.S. forces, set off air-raid sirens around Kuwait City. The alerts ended with government civil defense announcements that the missiles had been shot down near the Kuwait-Iraq border.
The Persian Gulf state force -- known as Peninsula Shield -- played no part in shooting down the Scuds, a task left to the batteries of U.S. Patriot missiles in the country. But the force's presence shows the importance that all the Gulf states place on maintaining their security ties to each other -- and to the U.S. and Britain -- as Washington wages war with Iraq.
The Peninsula Shield force is made up of units from all six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The GCC, mostly a political and economic organization, set up its Peninsula Shield force in the wake of the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The current crisis is its first wartime deployment.
Colonel Yusuf al-Mulla, the spokesman of the Kuwaiti Defense Ministry, said the Peninsula Shield force in the country numbers some 10,000 men and is reinforcing Kuwaiti military units guarding the border with Iraq -- an area off-limits to journalists. "They are in the north side of Kuwait. They have an area of responsibility side by side with the Kuwait armed forces. [They have] a defensive position, like the Kuwaiti forces. They have air defense systems for defending themselves. The Peninsula Shield is more than 10,000 soldiers," al-Mulla said
The force is a significant reinforcement for Kuwait because the emirate's own military comprises just some 20,000 soldiers. By contrast, combined U.S. and British forces in the region total some 250,000, while Iraq's army -- including regular plus elite units -- numbers several hundred thousand.
The presence of the joint Peninsula Shield force, which has been deployed in Kuwait for several months, is seen by some regional diplomats as a landmark success for the GCC.
Saad Bin Tefla is the former information minister of Kuwait. He says that the ability of the Gulf states to cooperate on security during the war stands in sharp contrast to the current disarray of other Arab regional organizations, such as the Arab League. "The GCC is probably one of the only organizations in this region that has withstood so many tremors and invasions and wars and the split in the Arab countries and the Arab League and the decline of the Arab League, so to speak," he said.
The Cairo-based Arab League, which groups 22 Arab governments, has been deeply split by the run-up to the war. Bitter divisions arose as most of the Gulf states provided facilities to support the U.S. military buildup prior to the conflict, but Syria and Lebanon called on all Arab states to deny aid to Washington and London.
Egypt, another key player in the region, allowed U.S. forces to transit through the Suez Canal while calling for diplomatic solutions to avert fighting. Cairo said on 18 March that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has put the entire region in danger, but he also warned Washington that war threatens stability in the Arab world.
As the Gulf states have stressed military cooperation in the crisis, they also have sought to find a common diplomatic stand. Before the war began, many of the Gulf states called for Saddam to go into voluntary exile as the only way to avoid conflict -- a position U.S. President George W. Bush made his final ultimatum to Baghdad early this week.
Just hours before the first U.S. bombs fell yesterday morning, Bahrain said it would even offer Saddam asylum to avert bloodshed -- the only state to do so.
The Gulf states' emphasis on finding peaceful solutions may in part have been motivated by a desire to reassure their own publics that they were doing everything to avoid a conflict that is widely unpopular in the Arab world.
The Saudi Arabian government has been particularly anxious to distance itself from the war over reported fears that domestic opposition could spark public unrest.
Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, the kingdom's de facto ruler, made a rare televised address on the night on 18 March to say that Riyadh will take no part in the war.
Prince Abdullah said that "the kingdom will under no circumstances take part in the war against brotherly Iraq, and its armed forces will not enter an inch of Iraqi territory." He also said that Riyadh wants the war to end "the moment that UN resolutions to disarm [Iraq] of weapons of mass destruction have been implemented, and we categorically refuse that...Iraq comes under [U.S.] military occupation."
Many observers see the Saudi government's statement as intended to maintain domestic calm. In the run-up to the conflict, some religious leaders independent of the government had called for attacking Americans if Washington invaded Iraq.
Many Arab critics of the U.S. intervention have charged that it is intended to weaken the Arab world and strengthen Israel's security. Washington, which denies the charges, has said its only goals are to disarm Iraq and remove Saddam's regime as a threat to the world's security.
Riyadh's desire to be seen as removed from the conflict belies its own strong security ties with the U.S., which are often criticized by opponents of the government. The strength of Saudi Arabia's ties with Washington, like those of the other GCC states, is well demonstrated by the military hardware used by the Peninsula Shield force, which is currently under Saudi command.
Bin Tefla said that almost all the force's equipment was deliberately procured to be compatible with that of American and British forces. "I would understand that there is a good degree of compatibility and coordination among the forces of the GCC, trying to get [defense systems] and armaments that are compatible with one another and also to be compatible with our main allies, the United States and Britain," bin Tefla said.
Many of the Gulf states also provide bases for U.S. troops routinely stationed in the region or deployed here for the war against Iraq.
Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. Qatar is hosting the U.S. Central Command's regional headquarters for the war. And Kuwait is the staging area for ground operations.
Saudi officials have sent conflicting signals as to whether Washington can use a key U.S.-built air base in the kingdom for sorties against Iraq. However, U.S. officials expressed confidence prior to the war that the facilities would be available if needed and praised Saudi Arabia as a good strategic partner.