Arabs Angry With U.s. For Iraq Crisis Former Gulf War Allies Decry Sanctions Against Iraq. U.s. Ties To Israel Help Fuel The Fire.

Posted: November 14, 1997

AMMAN, Jordan — One Arab commentator fumed that the United States was ``starving and besieging the Iraqi people . . . without the slightest regard for their human rights.''

``It has no credibility and is seeking only to achieve its selfish interests,'' echoed another.

If this was merely the rhetoric of the usual anti-American propagandists, there might be no reason for concern. But these unsparing comments were lead editorials this week in Egypt's Al-Ahram and Jordan's Al Dustour, the semiofficial newspapers of two of the United States' most important allies in the Arab world.

They reflect the degree to which anger over the latest Iraq crisis is directed not against Saddam Hussein, but against the United States. Their tone is a powerful sign of just how far American credibility in the region has fallen since the glory days of 1991 when the United States was able to enlist Egypt, Syria, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and most of the gulf states in an unprecedented coalition to push Iraq out of Kuwait.

As the American members of the U.N. inspection team headed toward Amman last night, newly booted out of Iraq, there was little resembling consensus in the Arab world about how to deal with the intransigent Saddam Hussein. Indeed, the coalition that existed during the gulf war can only be described as being in utter collapse.

``There is no coalition. It is not frayed: It doesn't exist,'' was the grim assessment of Jordan's foreign minister, Fayez Tarawneh.

Egypt vehemently opposes any use of American military strength to force Saddam Hussein into compliance with the United Nations' demand for access to weapons sites. Syria now openly sides with Iraq and has recently reopened border trade with Iraq.

Virtually the entire Arab world is vehemently decrying the crippling economic sanctions against Iraq, which some of the more virulent commentators say have killed more Iraqis than the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.

Even Kuwait, in whose defense the coalition was mounted, is defying the sanctions with an active black-market border trade in products such as computers, cars and bootlegged alcohol, according to several well-connected sources here. Officially, the Kuwaitis are simply staying out of an affair they are choosing to see as none of their business.

The Arab rebellion against U.S. gulf policy is inextricably linked with increasing anger over what is widely perceived here as America's bias in favor of Israel, particularly its unwillingness to put pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In an extraordinary rebuke, Egypt announced Tuesday that it would boycott a U.S.-sponsored economic conference in Qatar because of the impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. At this point, only Jordan, Yemen and tiny Oman plan to attend the conference scheduled to begin this weekend - a colossal embarrassment since the entire Arab world is participating in a rival Iranian-sponsored conference next month in Tehran.

Cairo's rebuff was particularly striking because Egypt is the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid and has normalized diplomatic relations with Israel.

``The frustration in the Middle East over the lack of progress, in fact the paralysis of the peace process, is very real and very serious,'' Egypt's foreign minister, Amr Moussa, said last night in an interview with CNN. ``This has its spillover on many other developments in the region.''

The downward spiral in U.S.-Arab relations accelerated back in June, when Congress voted in favor of moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, also coveted by the Palestinians as a capital of a future state. The nonbinding resolution inflamed Islamic sentiments throughout the region, sparking riots as well as unexpectedly harsh condemnations from such traditional U.S. allies as Saudi Arabia.

In this latest crisis over Iraq, there have been sporadic anti-American demonstrations in the West Bank, Gaza and Cairo. The U.S. Embassy in Cairo this week issued a warning that Americans traveling in Syria could be subject to attacks.

``Clearly, the consensus that existed at the time of the gulf war for the purpose of responding to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait is not there anymore,'' conceded a senior Western diplomat here. ``The coalition that came together at the time of the gulf war was an extraordinary thing that is not easily duplicated. I think that they [Arabs] are very frustrated with U.S. policy toward Iraq. They don't like the sanctions regime and they don't like U.S. pressure on them to enforce it.''

In Jordan, which is home to an estimated 150,000 Iraqi refugees - many of them opponents of Saddam Hussein - the primary concern voiced is humanitarian. ``If we are emotionally against sanctions, it is because it is creating suffering among 20 million Arab brothers and sisters in Iraq without any results,'' said Jordanian foreign minister Tarawneh.

The sanctions, says Tarawneh, have only succeeded in strengthening Saddam Hussein's hold on power in Iraq, allowing him to deflect blame for Iraq's disastrous economic condition to the international community.

``Look what has happened. Saddam has outlasted them all - Bush, Thatcher, Mitterrand,'' said Tarawneh, referring to the leaders of the original 1991 coalition. ``It is clear that the policy is not working.''

Jordan opposed the gulf war, but has nonetheless largely participated in the sanctions regime against Iraq. That participation, which is critical to making the sanctions work because of Jordan's long border with Iraq, has cost Jordan $10 billion in lost trade opportunities over the last seven years, according to Tarawneh.

What is perhaps most surprising about the Arab world's call to lift or ease sanctions is the seeming lack of fear about Iraq's military capabilities. While the current crisis was provoked by the fear that Iraq is hiding weapons of mass destruction from inspectors, in violation of a U.N. resolution, Arab diplomats say they believe the United States is exaggerating the threat as an excuse to continue isolating Saddam Hussein.

``Personally, I believe there is no capability of Iraq to threaten its neighbors for the next 20 years,'' said a well-placed Jordanian with close ties to King Hussein. ``The United States is setting up Saddam as a straw man to impose its interests on the region.''

Suha Umar, the Turkish ambassador to Jordan, suggests another reason that Iraq's neighbors are balking at the tough policy toward Saddam Hussein - the fear of what would happen if the Iraqi dictator is ousted and the Iraqi regime collapses.

``The problem with U.S. policy here is that it is concentrated on Saddam Hussein, but not on Iraq as a nation. What would happen after Saddam? If Iraq disintegrates, what happens to Turkey, to Iran, to Syria, Jordan, the gulf states. I don't think these questions have been thought through,'' Umar said.

``The Americans are, in my opinion, naive,'' Umar said. ``They are still strangers in the region. It takes them time to see things that we from here can see immediately.''

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