Arabs ready to divide along Gulf war lines: Charles Richards, Middle East Editor, discusses reactions of the region to the latest Gulf crisis

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The Independent Online
The political fall-out in the Middle East from the latest confrontation between Iraq and the US-led forces in the Gulf is likely to come down broadly along the same lines as during the Gulf war.

There will always be those who look on any military success Iraq might have, however limited, as evidence that Saddam Hussein is the one, strong and determined leader the Arabs have. This at a time when the impotence of the Arab nation and the world at large has been displayed over Israel's refusal to implement UN security council Resolution 799 demanding that it accept back the 413 Palestinians it expelled to southern Lebanon.

Even the most anti-Iraqi Arab states have always had misgivings about the allied no-fly zones, in the north and the south. They are dubious of the legality of the southern no-fly zone, declared by decision of the three Western powers which are permanent members of the UN Security Council. And they are wary of any attempt to dismember Iraq.

Syria, where the historic rivalry with Baghdad has reached a peak in the personal antagonism between Presidents Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad, is determined that Iraq be kept intact, whatever the fate of the current regime. 'We cannot agree on the partition or dismemberment of Iraq,' Vice- President Abdel Halim Khaddam said in an interview last month. 'We will fiercely oppose any such move because it would threaten the security and stability of the entire region.'

Two members of the Gulf war coalition - Turkey and Syria - together with Iran, met in mid- November to determine that no independent Kurdish state be set up in northern Iraq. All of these countries are very sensitive about any Kurdish nationalist aspirations because of their own Kurdish minorities.

The Saudis, who have given both moral and physical support to the US, Britain and France over the no-fly zone in the south, are characteristically reticent about making any substantial public statement of policy. The Saudi ambassador in London, Ghazi Algosaibi, released a statement that declared: 'Saudi Arabia is committed to the full implementation of the Security Council resolutions relating to Iraq. It will support all actions endorsed by the Security Council in the future - as it supported past resolutions. Only total compliance with the will of the international community, as expressed through the Security Council, can ensure peace and stability in the area.'

The Saudis do not even officially acknowledge the presence of coalition forces at their airfields: Stealth bombers based at the south-western air base of Khamis Mushayt, and British, French and US aircraft at Dhahran in the eastern province.

The Saudis are still keen to see the removal of Saddam Hussein (but whisper it not). Only the Kuwaitis are full-bloodedly behind the US military effort.

Dissident elements within Egypt and Saudi Arabia, however small, are opposed to the West's continued threat of the use of military force against Iraq. In Egypt, leaflets circulated outside mosques after Friday prayers yesterday by the Muslim Brothers accused the United States of 'plotting to divide Iraq' and to divert attention from Israeli 'oppression of the Palestinian people'.

In the closing days of the Gulf Co-operation Council summit in Abu Dhabi last month, the powerful lobby of conservative clergy in Saudi Arabia issued a warning to the Saud ruling family not to side with 'the infidels' against their Muslim brothers in Iraq.