CAIRO, NOV. 5 -- President Hosni Mubarak has placed Egypt in the forefront of Arab forces ranged against Iraq in a calculation of his country's political and financial interests, sharpened by personal anger against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, according to sources here.
Mubarak's strong stand, which is to come under review in talks here Tuesday with Secretary of State James A. Baker III, has meant the dispatch of 14,000 Egyptian troops to Saudi Arabia and several thousand more to the United Arab Emirates. The forces form the second-largest foreign contingent in the Persian Gulf area, after those of the United States, and would help put a much-needed pan-Arab umbrella over the military action that is among options under study in Baker's seven-nation tour.
The Egyptian leader has told Saudi Arabia that if asked, he would send still more forces, including warplanes, but the Saudi government so far has not taken up the new offer, sources reported.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Esmat Abdel-Meguid played a key role in a tripartite meeting last week in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, that opened the way for Syrian President Hafez Assad to go ahead with his earlier promise to send an armored division to Saudi Arabia. The 10,000-man unit, with 300 tanks, began arriving Sunday night, augmenting an earlier, largely symbolic dispatch of 3,000 Syrian soldiers to Saudi Arabia and 1,000 to the United Arab Emirates.
Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia have coordinated planning carefully ever since the Persian Gulf crisis erupted with Iraq's invasion of Kuwait Aug. 2, a diplomatic source pointed out. Reports in Cairo said Abdel-Meguid and his Saudi and Syrian counterparts plan another such gathering soon.
Just as important in the assessment of Egyptian and foreign observers, Mubarak has held firmly to Arab League and U.N. demands that Saddam agree to withdraw completely from Kuwait as a condition for starting any negotiations on future Persian Gulf relations or broader Arab-Israeli issues as sought by Iraq.
Mubarak emphasized Sunday, however, that U.N. economic sanctions must be given more time to work before any decision is made on military action.
According to Egyptian and foreign diplomatic sources, Mubarak has expressed hope that the Iraqi leader can be forced into concessions without bloodshed if the U.S.-led gulf alliance exerts enough economic, military and diplomatic pressure over enough time. U.S. officials in Washington have said agreement on how much is enough is one of Baker's main goals here and at other stops.
Tahseen Bashir, an Egyptian commentator and former government official, suggested Mubarak learned what pressure could do to Saddam in a meeting with the Iraqi leader in the mid-1980s, after Iraq's army suffered disastrous defeats at the hands of Iranian forces near Faw. Mubarak, who traveled to Baghdad at that crucial moment, found Saddam's military command was near collapse and Saddam himself appeared discouraged, Bashir related.
In response, Mubarak sent high-level Egyptian officers to advise Saddam on how to pull his military command back together and mount an effective defense. The gesture of Arab solidarity had particular meaning because Iraq had led Arab governments in ostracizing Egypt after Anwar Sadat's peace treaty with Israel only five years earlier.
Against that background, Egypt and Iraq grew steadily closer, with Iraq purchasing Egyptian arms and the two governments participating in a joint project to develop long-range missiles. As had the United States, Cairo viewed Saddam as a promising partner in dealing with the Palestine Liberation Organization and as a major player in guaranteeing the gulf against Iranian subversion.
Mubarak thus had no reason to suspect he was being lied to when Saddam reportedly told him shortly before Aug. 2 that he would not invade Kuwait despite threatening Iraqi troop movements. Mubarak relayed these assurances to President Bush and other world leaders. In addition, Bashir pointed out, he made the assurances public, making him look gullible before his own people when the news arrived Aug. 2.
"Mubarak was mad as hell," a diplomat said.
As a result, the Egyptian leader took the lead along with Saudi Arabia in organizing an Arab League resolution condemning Iraq and endorsing dispatch of Arab and other foreign troops to the gulf in August.
This policy has paid handsome dividends to Egypt so far in assistance for its ailing and heavily indebted economy.
The United States tentatively agreed last week to forgive a $7 billion debt incurred through purchase of U.S. military supplies. French President Francois Mitterrand, who met with Mubarak in Alexandria on Sunday, said that he responded positively to Mubarak's request that France forgive $2.8 billion in military debts, part of a total of $8.5 billion owed Paris.
The Cairo press, meanwhile, has reported prominently that Saudi Arabia and other gulf countries also are erasing Egypt's debts and promising financing for a variety of economic development projects. The government has publicized such benefits to show the long-suffering Egyptian people that Mubarak's active role in the gulf, which may get Egyptian youths killed, is bringing economic rewards, Bashir explained.
But Egyptian resolve in the Kuwait crisis also flows from an assessment that Iraqi predominance in the Arab world would harm the country's long-term interests, a senior diplomat said. At peace with Israel and wedded to a close relationship with the United States and Europe, Egypt could face problems in the years ahead if Saddam were allowed to set the Arab agenda, he added.