Awed Silence From Iraq's Arab Allies

Posted: August 03, 1990

CAIRO — Iraq's invasion of tiny, neighboring Kuwait yesterday left most other Arab leaders bewildered, cowed and looking a bit foolish.

And so they did not immediately answer the dramatic S.O.S. broadcast on Kuwaiti radio: "The people of Kuwait, their honor is being violated and their blood is being shed. Hurry to their aid, you Arabs."

In Cairo, where foreign ministers had just finished a meeting of the Islamic Conference Organization, not so much as a mild reproach was forthcoming in the hours after the attack. Only an awed and awful, embarrassed silence - and a contemplative huddle behind closed doors.

After all, for months most of the Arab world had rallied behind Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as the standard-bearer of Arab dignity and self- determination. As the leaders cozied up to him and his arsenal of chemical weapons, they maintained that he was a victim of an anti-Iraqi media campaign orchestrated by Israel and the West.

In their eyes, he was a man on the defensive, not the "Butcher of Baghdad," as his critics portrayed him, not a man who would turn on his perceived enemies with raw ruthlessness.

Just last week, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said Hussein had promised not to use the 100,000 soldiers he had lined up on the border to settle the dispute over land and oil.

Yesterday, the dawn shined on a new reality, and with it came a new perception.

The Arab League began an emergency session to discuss a response, and sources told United Press International that Kuwait had asked the league to invoke the joint Arab defense pact "as soon as possible." Even in times of Arab-Israeli war, the pact never has been activated.

"Kuwait has asked Arab nations to prepare an allied expeditionary force to liberate its territory from Iraqi occupation," a diplomatic source told UPI.

But the foreign ministers adjourned without condemning the invasion, planning to reconvene today.

Until this week, Arabs had interpreted Hussein's emerging power as a regional Cold War balance that could be used against Israel, the only other Middle Eastern country believed to possess weapons of mass destruction. Hussein was beginning to be seen as the new Gamal Abdel Nasser of the Middle East, with one important difference - he had the weapons and the will to back up his threats.

Those weapons include an army one million men strong and toughened by eight years of war with Iran, long-range missiles that he turned against Tehran, and chemical weapons that he used on both Iranians and his own Kurdish subjects when they sided with Iran.

But Hussein's muscle-flexing stepped up this year, as he continued to position himself as the strongman of the Middle East.

Earlier this year, Hussein threatened to unleash chemical weapons against Israel if it attacked Iraq with the nuclear weapons that Israel has never acknowledged possessing. In the ensuing furor over his threat, Arabs complained that the Western media had whipped up an anti-Iraqi frenzy by failing to emphasize the word if.

They also belittled the fears aroused this year when several European countries seized parts that were believed to be components of a giant Iraqi ''Doomsday Gun." They said the West was cooking up fantastic theories to counter Hussein's insistence that the Arab world had the right to possess the same military and scientific technology available to Israel and its Western allies.

It is understandable how many ordinary Arabs see no darkness in the man.

In the government-controlled media of Arab countries there have been no reports of the human rights violations that led the group Middle East Watch to call his "one of the most brutal and repressive regimes in power today."

Nor did they see reports of Iraq's buildup along the Kuwaiti border.

So the speed and ferocity of yesterday's invasion came as a true surprise.

An illusion had grown around Hussein, nourished by the Arab leaders who had moved closer into his orbit.

Jordan has conducted joint military exercises with Iraq. Jordan, Yemen and Egypt have aligned with Iraq in forming an economic entity known as the Arab Cooperation Council. Saudi Arabia forgave Iraq's war debts and signed a nonaggression pact with Iraq. And Yasir Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organization has spent more time in Baghdad lately than at PLO headquarters in Tunis.

But Hussein truly emerged as the leader of the Arab world only in late May, when he hosted an Arab summit in Baghdad.

Moderate Arab leaders such as Egypt's Mubarak failed in their attempts to tone down the rhetoric against Israel; Hussein led the bloc clamoring for more fiery language and for statements of support against all "aggression."

The only Arab leader to boycott the summit was Syria's Hafez al-Assad, who has a longstanding enmity with Hussein and who supported Iran in its war with Iraq.

But past favors and alliances like those traded upon at the summit are not always remembered by a man of such arching ambition that he aims to lead not only the Iraqis, but all Arabs.

Ironically, Kuwait was among the Arab nations that gave Hussein cash and weapons to fight Iran. At the time, the revolutionary government seemed more threatening to Kuwaitis because the Iranians' fundamentalist reading of Islam appeals to poverty-stricken masses in many other Muslim countries.

Now, those other Muslim countries have reason to fear that Hussein could turn on them, too.

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