Iraq Special Report
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  Arab States Further Isolate Saddam, Iraq

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 7, 1999; Page A20

CAIRO, Jan. 6 Despite widespread Arab criticism of last month's U.S.-led bombing campaign against Iraq, moderate Arab states have escalated their attacks on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, dashing hopes in Baghdad for an easing of the country's isolation.

On Tuesday, the Iraqi ruler lashed out in fury against pro-Western Arab states, calling on their citizens to revolt against leaders he denounced as "throne dwarves" and "collaborators." At least for now, Saddam Hussein's angry words appear to have brought the curtain down on Iraq's efforts to mend relations with its Arab neighbors, where sympathy has been building for ordinary Iraqis hurt by the trade sanctions against their country.

In particular, Baghdad had sought to capitalize on the angry reaction among ordinary Arabs to last month's U.S. and British bombing raids, the heaviest since the 1991 Persian Gulf War. In the aftermath of the bombing, however, Arab foreign ministers postponed a meeting to discuss the country's plight, and moderate Arab states such as Egypt and Jordan have drawn pointed distinctions between the Iraqi people and a leader they regard with contempt.

"There is no shred of support for Saddam anywhere in the Arab scene," said Nabil Osman, chairman of Egypt's State Information Service. "This regime is a curse. ... This regime and this man is squandering an Arab potential."

Osman's statements echo those given in recent interviews by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who even after expressing misgivings about the U.S. airstrikes said that Saddam Hussein is responsible for the problems faced by his country. In a tangible expression of that view, Egypt's ambassador to Jordan is reported to have met recently with representatives of the Iraqi National Accord, an exile group dedicated to ousting the Iraqi ruler.

The rhetorical pitch has been building since Arab foreign ministers canceled a meeting planned for late last month to discuss the agenda for a possible Arab summit on Iraq. The meeting had been requested by Yemen and other Arab states that have sought to ease the trade sanctions imposed on Iraq following its 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Iraq had hoped to use the meeting and subsequent summit to capitalize on what it viewed as escalating popular anger toward U.S. policy on Baghdad.

Under pressure from moderate Arab states such as Egypt, however, the foreign ministers agreed to postpone the meeting until later this month a decision that unleashed angry criticism from Baghdad. In the most personal assault, the Iraqi newspaper Babel owned by Saddam Hussein's eldest son, Uday ran a cartoon depicting Mubarak as a belly dancer performing for President Clinton.

Such attacks appear to have erased much of the sympathy that Iraq accumulated during Operation Desert Fox. Osman, the Egyptian spokesman, said Saddam Hussein mistook empathy for Iraqi citizens for sympathy with his regime, and was frustrated when the reality of his isolation was made clear.

"There will be no chance that Egypt can rehabilitate or accommodate Saddam Hussein and his regime as such," Osman said.

Notwithstanding the deep anger toward Saddam Hussein in many Arab capitals, Arab leaders as a group are unlikely to engage in any direct efforts to undermine his regime, according to Arab officials, analysts and Western diplomats.

Osman and others say the Arab world is hesitant to intervene in internal Iraqi politics. Particularly among the region's more centrist governments, the principle of noninterference has become paramount, because it has led to such disastrous results in the past and because they don't want to provide excuses for neighbors to reciprocate.

In general, Arab governments contend that the Iraqi regime can only be changed from inside Iraq and that U.S. support for exile groups is therefore an exercise in futility. "To set a precedent of meddling would be dangerous for the stability of the whole region," Osman said. The issue of who runs Iraq "is something the Iraqi people must decide."

That attitude reflects the quandary facing Arab states, the United Nations and Washington as they search for a solution to Iraq that does not cause further harm to its people or inflame Arab public opinion against the West.

Arab states, in particular, object to unilateral U.S. military action, which they see as an insult to Arab pride and emblematic of a double standard that holds Iraq to one standard of behavior and Israel to another.

With Arab leaders unwilling or unable to develop their own plan for Iraq's rehabilitation, the stalemate threatens to endure, with Saddam Hussein clinging to power, the United States perhaps undertaking occasional military strikes and the Iraqi people muddling along with only marginal improvements in their prospects.

Confronted with such stark choices, the attitude of Arab governments typically could be described as, "Don't make us face that question," a Western diplomat said. "Think up something else. It comes back to the age-old problem: Nobody has a better idea."

As broad goals, Arab governments say they want to avoid force, help the Iraqi people and hold Saddam Hussein to the disarmament promises he made at the end of the gulf war, but beyond that "there are 25 unanswered questions" about how to achieve those ends, the diplomat added.

"There is no strong sense that this is such an Arab problem it has to be solved by Arabs," the diplomat said. "What they are saying is, 'You have to solve it. But don't intrude.'"

Drawing parallels with other leaders who have survived under long-term economic sanctions, Johns Hopkins University Prof. John Duke Anthony pointed to Cuba and its president, Fidel Castro, as evidence of how long such situations can last.

"Here is someone demonized as a pariah but he stays on and plays softball and has an audience with the pope and smokes those stogies," Anthony said. "Castro is a survivor. [Libyan leader Moammar] Gadhafi would be a second. [Former Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini died in his sleep. There are quite a few examples where pariahs and Saddam Hussein is one lived to an old age."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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