Iraq Crisis: Bahrain joins league against military strikes

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The Independent Online
BAHRAIN, the base for US Navy warships which would deliver the bulk of any armed strike against Iraq, yesterday joined the growing number of Gulf states expressing strong opposition to military action to solve the crisis.

"The first priority should be given to the diplomatic effort and a peaceful solution to the crisis, no matter what it takes, because we fear the other alternative in this confrontation will be no less than a catastrophe to this region, the Arab world and the Middle East," said Bahrain's Crown Prince, Sheikh Hamad al-Khalifa. The dangerous consequences of a military showdown "could not be accepted on the Gulf, regional or international levels".

While the Gulf's oil monarchies have no desire to see Saddam Hussein holding weapons of mass destruction, they fear the unpredictable consequences of a military campaign the objectives of which are less clear cut and much harder to achieve than in 1991. Apart from the possibility of retaliation by Iraq, Sheikh Khalifa's comments reflect their concern that successful military action against President Saddam could simply increase the dangers they face. Seven years ago, the Western allies discovered that near-unanimous support in the Arab world for the removal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait quickly evaporated when it came to ousting the Iraqi leader himself.

Even if he were to be significantly weakened, the Sunni Muslim states of the Gulf believe, it could lead to the break-up of Iraq, creating an unstable Shia Muslim entity on their borders which would inevitably look towards Iran. "Iraq, the most secular state in the Arab world, is regarded as virgin territory by Islamic extremists," said a Kuwaiti analyst. "Sunni and Shia elements are vying for position in the power vacuum which would result if Saddam departs."

Some of that unease was reflected by Sheikh Khalifa, who said yesterday: "No Arab would accept a military strike against another Arab country ... if it is not itself the aggressor ... as happened in the 1990 invasion of Kuwait. The current situation between Iraq and the United Nations is different to that."

Bahrain was following other Gulf monarchies, such as the United Arab Emirates, in openly trying to slow the increasing momentum towards military action. On Monday, the UAE cabinet said it "rejected the use of force against Iraq and demanded a solution to the crisis by peaceful means". Qatar's foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad al-Thani, was due to return yesterday from a meeting with President Saddam in Baghdad. He is the most senior Gulf representative to go to Iraq since the Gulf War.

Even Saudi Arabia, which suffered missile attacks and a Iraqi troop incursion in 1991, has refused to allow US forces to use its bases, and King Fahd has referred specifically to Iraq's "territorial integrity". He called for diplomacy to be exhausted to bring the crisis over weapons inspections to an end.

Kuwait, where 6,000 US ground troops are stationed and another six Stealth fighter-bombers are on the way, has avoided public comment on the lack of support in the Gulf Co-operation Council for a military solution. Last week, it hosted a meeting of GCC foreign ministers which stressed that no member of the organisation would itself take part in any attacks.