Britain and America march towards a battle the Arabs do not want

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The Independent Online
American and British leaders may like to believe that they have international support for an assault on Iraq. But the Arab states - along with much of Europe - regard it as a war to end all hope of peace. Robert Fisk, Middle East Correspondent, talked to a Jordanian who discussed the crisis with Saddam Hussein only days ago.

When Leith Shubailath met Saddam Hussein a few days ago, the Iraqi leader said to him: "We didn't go into this fight to end it like this". Mr Shubailath, the Jordanian opposition figure who secured the release of scores of Jordanians from Iraqi prisons after a personal meeting with Saddam, found the West's bete noir both composed and patient. "He was extremely cool - I couldn't take 2 per cent of what he is taking," Mr Shubeilath told The Independent yesterday. "Saddam was very philosophical. He knows it is a political decision [to permit arms inspectors to move freely in Iraq] and he will not give in."

Mr Shubeilath, it should be added, is something of a Jacobin. Imprisoned by King Hussein of Jordan for allegedly defaming the Royal Family - he criticised Queen Noor of Jordan for weeping at Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's funeral but not at the murder by Israelis of a Palestinian extremist leader - the Jordanian trade unionist travelled to Baghdad to secure the release of his fellow countrymen after four Jordanians had been hanged for smuggling. King Hussein was not amused - neither at the hanging, nor the intervention of Mr Shubeilath.

But the gadfly of the Hashemite monarchy is no less afraid to criticise the West as he is his own king - or "our guy here" as he semi-affectionately refers to King Hussein. "If for seven years, the Americans could not finish their work of arms discovery [in Iraq], then they are lying," he said. "The UN embargo has become a weapon of mass murder. In Baghdad 250 women die in a week. The Iraqi people are being punished for their civilisation and their ability to master [technical] know-how."

That is not quite how the West sees it, least of all those who remember that Saddam used mustard gas against his own Kurdish people at Halabja and against the Iranians in the 1980-88 war. Nor is "civilisation" quite the word the Kuwaitis would use for their brutal occupation by Iraq in 1990. But there is a good deal of hubris in Washington, which the Arab world watches with ever increasing despair. Iraqis, after all, are Arabs. And the Americans who plan to bomb them, are not.

In his State of the Union address, President Bill Clinton claimed that the world was waiting for America to act against Saddam. He was wrong. The world - barring Britain - is in no hurry to see the United States yet again pulverise potentially the richest Arab country. And the Arabs themselves are appalled at the prospect of another onslaught on a state which claims that at least a million of its people have died of starvation or lack of medical facilities.

Western diplomats have been busy playing spin doctor to journalists. It's true that the Arabs are against the "military option", they say; but in secret, within their tents, the sheikhs and kings would like to see Saddam Hussein toppled. They do not want their countries threatened by the dictator of Baghdad. Alas for these rulers, US Defense Secretary William Cohen has already announced that military strikes would not be intended to topple Saddam. And many an Arab ruler is more worried about the furious response of his own people to a US attack than an offensive against him by Saddam.

Across the Middle East - and in international Arab papers like the Saudi- owned Al-Hayat - Arab journalists have been pointing out that an attack on Iraq could only be acceptable if the US forced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to abide by the Oslo peace accords - and allow the Palestinians a state. Alas again, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright cancelled her weekend press conference with Mr Netanyahu after another spectacular diplomatic failure: she could not persuade the Israeli leader to halt Jewish settlements or make further substantial withdrawals from the West Bank - the only acts which could persuade Arab rulers to give even covert support to an attack on Iraq.

So America and Britain march alone into war against an Arab nation - much as Britain and France did against Egypt in 1956 - with only the tight- lipped sympathy of France and Germany and the potential hostility of many Arab nations. If Mr Clinton lets slip the missiles of war, it could be America's last punch in the Middle East.