Policing Saddam: Why the Arabs were so hostile to US attack

Middle-East states may hate Saddam, but they stand by Iraq, writes Robert Fisk
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Beirut - "Why do the Arabs only like Americans when we're coming to protect them?" The voice was clear down the line to Beirut from the Delaware radio station, an ordinary American reporter who was stunned that the Arabs should be ungrateful for President Bill Clinton's latest bombardment against one of the oldest of Arab lands.

Was it the lack of nuance that made the question so offensive? Or the assumption that firing cruise missiles at Saddam would somehow give locals the same feel-good factor that Mr Clinton admitted to?

The Saudis and the Turks had sullenly refused permission for the United States' bombers to take off from their air bases. The Egyptians and Jordanians expressed "concern", leaving it to the Arab League secretary-general to call the American attack "an aggression against the sovereignty of an Arab state".

Al-Ahram, the most prestigious Egyptian newspaper, asked why the US did not intervene when Turkey invaded the Kurdish safe haven in its hunt for Communist guerrillas, or when Iran sent its artillery into Iraqi Kurdistan. In Qatar, a paper suggested that Washington "found in the Arabs an easy prey as it fires missiles against them, uses them as a field test for its ... modern weapons".

Even Syria, whose obsessive hatred of Saddam almost matches Mr Clinton's, claimed the attack violated laws against "interference in the internal affairs of other countries".

The US's latest adventure in Iraq - and Washington's irritation at the Arab response - demonstrates yet again the gulf of incomprehension that lies between the Arabs of the Middle East and the world's only superpower. True, Arabs do not like Saddam. Most of them loath him for his arrogance and brutality. But Iraq, the ancient land of the two great rivers of Tigris and Euphrates, home to the Sumerian and Assyrian peoples, the site of Babylon and Ur, traditional bulwark against Persia, is something else. For Iraq is the only Arab country which contains both water and substantial quantities of oil. Syria and Lebanon and Egypt have water; the Arab Gulf states have oil. But only Iraq possesses both "naptha" and water, the source of both wealth and survival.

They thus make Iraq the most viable, potentially the strongest nation in the Arab world, a country which captures the imagination of Arabs, however much they fear and revile its current dictator. It promises hope amid humiliation and political defeat. And the Americans have bombarded it again.

The West may blame Saddam for this humiliation and ask why we in the West should not support the other local dictators in the region in our battle against the Beast of Baghdad. Did not Britain make an alliance with Stalinist Russia against Hitler in the Second World War? - I was asked on a BBC discussion programme this week. "This is the question you are being asked to address," came the haughty voice down the line from London. How often have I heard this tired argument?

Back in 1980, I recall a Foreign Office factotum briefing journalists who asked - not unreasonably - whether it was such a good idea for Britain and the US to give tacit support to Saddam Hussein after his invasion of Iran. At that time, of course, Iran was supposed to be playing the role of the Third Reich. "Didn't Britain make an alliance with Stalin against Hitler in the Second World War?" Our Man asked indignantly.

Plus ca change. A decade and a half ago, Saddam was Stalin, our ally in the battle against Hitlerian Iran. Now the other Arab leaders, along with their secret policemen, are all Stalins who should be helping us fight Hitlerian Iraq. The trouble is that, five years ago, a man called George Bush asked us to believe in a New World Order, a set of principles which would supposedly put an end to the institutionalised brutality of the Middle East and the self-interest of nation-states.

Oddly, many Arabs put their faith in this short-lived if laudable concept. Yet there was President Clinton this week, talking of America's "interests" in the region; or was that what Mr Bush had in mind?