Arabs hail Saddam as Middle East victor

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The Independent Online
MIDDLE-EAST rulers believe Saddam Hussein has won the latest round in the Iraq crisis, and are beginning to hedge their bets between Baghdad and Washington. "Saddam is seen as splitting the UN Security Council, showing that the Arab states do not want military action against Iraq, and frightening the Israelis with his biological and chemical weapons," said an Arab specialist on Iraq who did not want his name mentioned. "The mood is not so much pro-Iraqi as anti-American and anti-Israeli."

The Arabs are not convinced, however, that the crisis is over, in part because they cannot quite believe Washington has backed down. Thirty American warships are still in the Gulf and they wonder how far America has ruled out a military option.

This difference in perception over what was won and lost by the agreement signed last weekend by Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, has a simple origin. The US and Britain focus on their success in getting Baghdad to agree to granting unfettered access to Saddam's eight presidential palaces, in order to search for weapons of mass destruction. But some Arab countries suspect Iraq's refusal in December to let UN weapons inspectors enter the palaces was just a ploy by Baghdad, which always intended to drop its objections after milking the crisis for concessions. After all, Iraq is a big country with many places other than the palaces to hide weapons. The Arab states also see these weapons primarily as a threat to Israel, not themselves.

Viewed from the Middle East, the Iraqi leader has gained a great deal by bringing the region to the brink of war. He will now be allowed to export $5.2bn worth of oil, or two-thirds of the volume of crude that he was exporting when sanctions were first imposed in 1990. And Mr Annan's visit appears to have largely ended international ostracism of his regime. Above all, it seems clear that Saddam is going to stay in power and that his neighbours will need to reach some accommodation with him.

The option of overthrowing the government in Baghdad is seen as having had its day. This dates back to 1991, when the Gulf War alliance declined to march on Baghdad. The CIA's subsequent efforts to build up an opposition force in Iraqi Kurdistan then collapsed when Saddam sent his forces in to capture the Kurdish capital, Arbil. Successive military conspiracies backed from abroad have been crushed by the Iraqi security services. Any further efforts to get rid of the Iraqi leader, by a military coup, for example, would now have to take place without the active support of Arab governments, which are becoming more nervous about Iraqi retaliation.

Supposing no military action takes place, how far has the political map of the Middle East been changed by the crisis? The allies of the US are feeling nervous. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have shown this by refusing to permit their territory to be used for launching air strikes on Iraq. Jordan saw serious pro-Iraqi riots last weekend, and even President Hafez al-Assad of Syria, arch-rival of the regime in Baghdad, has recently been receiving senior Iraqi officials in Damascus.

It is not merely Iraq's resurgence which is changing the political atmosphere. It is more that the US is having to pay a price for the policies it has adopted since 1993, when Bill Clinton entered the White House. Despite the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo accords of that year, the living standards of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank have plummeted. The US has dropped its opposition to Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, which it held under President Bush, and there is little sign this will change. Instead, the US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright insists there is no connection between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the confrontation with Iraq. Without any political levers, the only card America can deploy against Saddam remains military force.