Raid on Baghdad: Jury, judge and executioner: Washington's attack leaves Arab allies uneasy about double standards, writes Charles Richards, Middle East Editor

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WHEN President Ronald Reagan unleashed his F-111 bombers on Tripoli in April 1986, Western experts on the Arab world warned that this would be counter-productive. The attack would strengthen the resolve of the Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, they argued. It would turn him into a new Nasser, a champion of the Arabs who had stood up to the West.

The experts were proved wrong. The Americans achieved their objective. Colonel Gaddafi lay low for a couple of years. But there was a price to pay. Two British teachers, kidnapped in Lebanon and sold on to agents of Libyan intelligence, were murdered after the attack. And investigators are convinced that the Lockerbie bombing was in reprisal for the US air action.

President Bill Clinton has cited the same pretext - waging war on terrorism - for bombing Baghdad. Americans have broadly welcomed the attack. The bombing of the World Trade Center in New York and the discovery of a plot to blow up the United Nations building has increased US hostility to what is seen as Middle East terrorism within its borders.

The attack on Baghdad was a sign, if any were needed, that Mr Clinton does not wish to be seen as a pushover on Iraq. His policy towards both Iran and Iraq is one of dual containment: to try to ensure that any threat they might pose to US interests in the region be contained.

But however popular the attack may be in the US, it has aroused considerable concern among the states that form the coalition ranged against President Saddam.

The pretext for the attack was quite different from those in January. Then, the Americans said they were punishing Iraq for not letting UN weapons inspectors fly into Baghdad. Iraq was seen as in breach of its obligations determined by the UN as part of the ceasefire resolutions after the Gulf war. That attack had at least the moral weight of the international community behind it.

This time, the US is acting for itself. It has been jury, judge and executioner even as the trial of suspects in the assassination plot against former President George Bush is in progress. It was a simple act of tit for tat. The Defense Secretary, Les Aspin, said that inherent in the attack was a message for the inner circle round President Saddam. that it was not healthy to stay around. The Americans have for two years entertained the hope that somehow well-placed members of the regime would rise up and overthrow the Iraqi leader. The hope has never been realised. And as President Saddam strengthens his hold on the country, such a policy seems more and more erroneous.

There had been concern among hardliners in the US that President Clinton might seek to de-personalise the confrontation with President Saddam, even to seek accommodation with Iraq, if the Iraqi leader changed his policies. In a New York Times interview he spoke of his belief in death-bed conversions. But he has since explained that if President Saddam changed his policies, and conformed to all UN demands, his position as Iraqi leader would be untenable.

Within Iraq, the latest attack is seen as further evidence of the victimisation of the Iraqi people. Opinion has changed markedly over the past two years. Immediately after the Gulf war, people broadly supported the Americans whom they hoped would rid them of the tyrant who had brought the war on their heads. Two years on, they are hurt by the UN sanctions, the shortages of food and medicine, and feel they are being made to suffer through no fault of their own. They are in no position to rise up against the regime. At the same time, the ruling elite want for nothing.

The suffering of the Iraqi people has evoked compassion across the Arab world, placing governments which support Washington in a delicate position. The Arab League, in effect a tool of Egyptian foreign policy, expressed deep reservations, saying. It said the 'use of force had no part in the settlement of disputes in the New World Order'.

'(I hope) US policy positions will be as firm towards the crimes the Serbs of Bosnia-Herzegovina are commiting in violation of legitimacy and all international charters,' a spokesman quoted the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Amr Moussa, as saying. He said that the US could hardly expect support when the West failed to intervene in Bosnia. Yet there is little the Egyptians can do except wring their hands, and keep taking the dollars 3bn ( pounds 2bn) a year aid from the US.