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Egypt: 'Options on Table' for Iraq

By John Lancaster and Barton Gellman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 4, 1998; Page A21

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said yesterday she will report to President Clinton that none of the six Arab leaders she consulted this week expressed outright opposition to the use of force against Iraq. A senior official traveling with her suggested that some were openly supportive in private.

In an eight-nation trip through Europe and the Middle East, Albright spoke to leaders of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, Bahrain and the Palestinian Authority.

"We talked about various implications of using force but . . . I underline that none of the Arab leaders, specifically, urged me to tell the president not to use force," she said to reporters aboard her aircraft en route back to Washington.

Albright has stated throughout the trip that the United States is informing allies of its intentions but is not canvassing for support or asking permission to enforce the disarmament conditions set by the U.N. Security Council at the close of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. But it is central to the Clinton administration's strategy now to portray itself as the head of a unified "international community," and Albright found time for a news conference every day of the trip in which she recapitulated the support she had received.

Earlier, in Egypt, Albright said all six Arab governments agreed on the central components of the American public rationale for military action: that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein created the present crisis by defying U.N. weapons inspectors, that diplomacy is the preferred way to secure his compliance, and that grave consequences would follow from diplomacy's failure.

"In a Security Council resolution, 'grave consequences' is a very significant statement," said a senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Grave consequences mean that these leaders are all talking about the possible use of force and blaming that potential outcome on Saddam Hussein.

After a week in which Egypt openly has voiced its opposition to any kind of military strike against Baghdad, Cairo's measured support marked a clear softening in tone on the part of a key U.S. ally in the Middle East.

In Bahrain, earlier in the day, the government became the third in the Persian Gulf region – after Saudi Arabia and Kuwait – to associate itself with American threats of military force in the confrontation over U.N. inspection of Iraqi weapons. U.S. officials said Albright encountered no unexpected opposition to the use of American combat jets based at the Sheik Isa Air Base there if the United States decides to bomb Iraq.

Washington's Arab allies are far from enthusiastic at the prospect of U.S. airstrikes against Iraq. Public opinion in Arab countries is deeply sympathetic to the Iraqi people, if not to the regime of Saddam Hussein, and pro-Western Arab states are united in emphasizing the need for a diplomatic solution to the standoff.

Adding to diplomatic efforts by France, Russia and Turkey, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has spent the last several days telephoning fellow Arab leaders to draft a message that will be carried to Saddam Hussein in Baghdad Wednesday by Arab League Secretary General Esmat Abdel Meguid.

Except for Bahrain and Kuwait, none of Washington's Arab allies has given assurances that it would cooperate in military operations against Iraq should diplomatic efforts fail. Saudi Arabia is considering a U.S. request to permit American bombers to fly through its airspace en route to Iraq, and American support aircraft, such as refueling planes, to fly from Saudi bases.

At the same time, U.S. officials said they have been gratified by expressions of support from such key Arab leaders as Jordan's King Hussein and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah. After Abdullah and Albright met for six hours Monday, the Saudi government agreed in a statement that the failure of diplomatic efforts would "lead to grave consequences whose responsibility would lie exclusively on the Iraqi regime."

Emerging with Albright from a meeting with Mubarak at Ittihadiya Palace here this evening, Foreign Minister Amr Moussa used similar language in comments to reporters. "It is very important that there would be full compliance" with the U.N. inspections, Moussa said, adding that the two governments agree on the need to exhaust all diplomatic avenues "in order to avoid grave consequences."

Asked whether Egypt was prepared to back military force against Iraq if diplomacy fails, Moussa replied, "I'm not ready to go beyond that for the time being."

Albright said, "we welcome the fact that others are making an effort to get a diplomatic solution. But I also have to say that I am skeptical about it given the kinds of responses that Saddam Hussein has already given to a number of envoys that have gone there." She repeated previous warnings that any military strike against Iraq would be "significant."

[Russia said it was continuing to make progress in its mediation efforts in Baghdad despite an Iraqi denial Monday of concessions reported in Moscow. French envoy Bertrand Dufourcq arrived in the Iraqi capital with a message from French President Jacques Chirac for Saddam Hussein that he planned to deliver on Wednesday. British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, meanwhile, announced plans to visit Saudi Arabia and Kuwait this week to discuss the crisis as Kuwait put its military on higher alert.]

In military terms, Egyptian cooperation would make little difference to the United States, which has concentrated most of its firepower on aircraft carriers and land bases in the Persian Gulf region. As the largest and arguably most influential Arab country, however, Egypt can play a crucial role in providing the administration with political cover as it did when it participated in the U.S.-led coalition to drive Iraqi troops from Kuwait in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

The U.S. case for military action was not helped by a recent comment attributed to chief U.N. weapons inspector Richard Butler to the effect that Saddam Hussein has enough biological weapons to "blow away Tel Aviv" – language he later said was taken out of context.

Echoing comments by Mubarak, Egypt's semiofficial Al Ahram newspaper said in a lead editorial today that Butler's comment "confirmed the beliefs of Arab citizens that the goal of the U.N. committee is not to implement the U.N. resolutions but to paralyze Iraq for Israel's benefit."

But Albright's conversation with Mubarak appears to have softened Egyptian objections, at least for now.

Appearing alongside Albright in Bahrain this morning, Foreign Minister Mohammed Bin Mubarak Khalifa repeated several elements of the formula that Albright has pressed in her eight-nation diplomatic campaign. He warned that failure to reach a diplomatic solution would have serious consequences and that Iraq would be the responsible party.

Lancaster reported from Cairo, Gellman from Bahrain, Cairo and Shannon, Ireland.

© Copyright 1998 The Associated Press

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