The Arab League, against a background of angry condemnation in the Middle East, called yesterday for an emergency meeting to confront what its secretary general called an "arrogant challenge" posed by Israel's attack on an Iraqi nuclear reactor.
The gathering of Arab foreign ministers, scheduled for Baghdad within three days, came in response to a request from Iraq after Israel announced that its warplanes had destroyed the facility Sunday evening, Secretary General Chedli Klibi announced.
The Iraqi leadership accused "the Zionist entity" of bombing the reactor to prevent a closing of the technological gap between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors. It asked for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council and called in Baghdad-based envoys of the council's five permanent members, informing them that Baghdad has always abided by its commitment under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty while Israel has refused to undertake such commitments, the official Iraqi News Agency reported.
The Iraqi government made no announcement concerning casualties.
The effort to organize a common Arab reaction reflected shared outrage at the Israeli planes' success in striking deep within Iraq at a target supposedly protected by Iraqi antiaircraft missiles and escaping unscathed back to their home base some 600 miles away.
At the same time, the appeal to the Security Council etched with renewed clarity the disarray in Arab and Moslem ranks and the consequent difficulty in preparing an effective regional response to Israel's attack. As the announcement was made, for example, the foreign ministers of four Arab League countries -- Saudi Arabia, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon -- were participating in talks designed to resolve the intermittent war between Lebanese Christian irregulars and Syrian troops in Lebanon under an Arab League peacekeeping mandate since 1976.
Moreover, the potential of an Iraqi military strike in retaliation against Israel has been reduced sharply by Baghdad's 9-month-old war against Iran. Recent reports attributed to Western intelligence have suggested that President Saddam Hussein's Iraqi Army was reinforcing units near the besieged Iranian town of Abadan in apparent preparation for a renewed offensive against the oil refining center.
The Iraqi Air Force, although strong on paper with more than 300 combat aircraft including 80 advanced Mig23s at the outset of the war, has suffered losses against Iranian jets and antiaircraft batteries and, in any case, has not proved decisive.
Syria, already locked in a confrontation with Israel over Syrian antiaircraft missiles in Lebanon, withheld direct comment on the possibility of a joint response. Syrian Foreign Minister Abdul Halim Khaddam said only that the Israeli attack on Iraq "is part of the Israeli policy aimed at the Arab nation."
The caution in Damascus betrayed deep antagonism between the rival wings of the Arab Baath Socialist Party that rule in Syria and Iraq, including Iraqi charges that Syria's President Hafez Assad has along with Libya helped get military supplies to Iran for use against Iraq.
Alluding to this, a Jordanian government statement condemning the Israeli attack said: "Those who do not support Iraq would in effect be supporting Israel.Supporting Iran means supporting the Zionist enemy."
Jordan, a neighbor of Syria and Iraq, has strongly backed Iraq in the war against Iran. But its relations with Syria have been tense since Syria massed troops at the frontier with Jordan last winter amid accusations that King Hussein was giving refuge to Moslem Brotherhood insurgents against President Hafez Assad's rule.
Saudi Arabian Information Minister Mohammed Abdo Yamani issued a statement after a Saudi Cabinet meeting denouncing the Israeli attack and calling it the "peak of international terrorism practiced by Israel."
Kuwait, a close Saudi ally, also labeled the raid an act of terrorism and urged "collective Arab action" to prevent such attacks from recurring. "The Israeli attack is a continuation of the enemy's aggression against the Arab people in Lebanon," the Kuwaiti government statement added.
Among the most strongly worded condemnations came from Egypt, whose President Anwar Sadat met only last week with Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel amid expressions of Egyptian-Israeli friendship. The sharp tone of the Egyptian condemnation was said to reflect Sadat's embarrassment at the timing of the raid -- right on the heels of his meeting with Begin -- more than its aim.
"Egypt, while condemning this action, considers it an irresponsible and unjustifiable crime," said Foreign Minister Kamal Hassan Ali in a statement for which Egyptian radio interrupted its normal programs. "It marks a sharp escalation of the explosive situation in the Middle East."
Sadat himself later issued a statement on Egypt's official Middle East News Agency calling the Israeli raid "unlawful" and "provocative." Without mentioning his summit talks with Begin, he added that the Israeli "aggression" against Iraq violated the spirit of peace.