Showdown in Iraq: The Gulf war that Saddam won: To the West it was a spanking for a despot, but to Arabs it was another example of our hypocrisy; The Middle East

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'THEY will throw me out before you return,' Sulieman Khalidi had told me last year. 'Give me a call if you like, but I don't think I'll be here to answer the phone.' Palestinians developed the habit of talking like that, as they faced the wrath of Kuwaitis after the Gulf war. Last week, I called Khalidi as I had promised. 'He's no longer here,' a woman answered irritably. 'Yes, he was living in this house but he left for Jordan. No, he is not coming back. Yes, I am Kuwaiti.'

Earlier in the week, I had sat on a south Lebanese mountainside with Abdul al-Awaissi as he scribbled in a notebook with a borrowed ball-point, writing - as he put it, with gloomy accuracy - 'another page in the history of Palestine'. He, too, had been forced from his home - by Israel rather than Kuwait. Even on Monday, amid the ocean of brown mud in which he lives with 412 other Palestinian deportees, al-Awaissi had predicted the Western air strikes against Iraq, gently pointing out - with a smile no Westerner deserved - the disparity among UN Security Council resolutions.

The Security Council did not bother to protest at the 'ethnic cleansing' of up to 360,000 Palestinians from Kuwait over the past two years. The Kuwait excuse was that some of them had collaborated with Iraq. The UN did dutifully resolve last December that the Palestinian deportees dumped in Lebanon should be returned to Israel; two beaming UN delegates were even sent to Jerusalem to beg Israel to comply with this Security Council resolution, but were met with Saddam-like intransigence. The Israeli government then let it be known that the United States had already promised to veto any UN demands enforcing the resolution, which would allow al-Awaissi and his Islamic colleagues - expelled after the murder of an Israeli border guard in whose death they had no part - to go home.

But al-Awaissi, a professor of history at Hebron University, will have noted in his diary what happens to Arabs who dare to flout the same UN Security Council. He will have picked it up on the battered transistor radio in his frozen, candle-lit tent. Armed with their UN mandate, the American, British and French air forces hurled their anger at Saddam for defying the Security Council by moving missiles around the no-fly zones and crossing the new Iraqi-Kuwaiti frontier.

The allied attack coincided with the conclusion of the Bosnian peace conference in Geneva, at which the Muslims protested at the West's double standards at the UN. Why did the UN not force Serbia to obey Security Council resolutions and spare the lives of thousands of Muslims? spokesmen for President Alia Izetbegovic asked.

Astonishingly, the US president-elect, Bill Clinton, not only failed to understand the nature of these post-Cold War double standards - his briefly held notion that a change in Saddam's behaviour might alter Washington's relations with Baghdad was stifled at great speed - but also declared himself baffled by Saddam's motives. 'For reasons I don't understand,' he admitted, 'he keeps pushing and pushing.'

But why doesn't he understand? Why, indeed, does the West remain so obsessed with the demonisation of Saddam and with the weapons technology ranged against him that it cannot fathom there might be real, carefully contrived reasons for Iraq's apparently suicidal policies? Saddam Hussein has proved himself a cruel and evil tyrant. He is arguably the most ferocious dictator the Middle East has seen this century. But this is no excuse for the failure of Western leaders to comprehend what his actions - and, perhaps more to the point, their actions - mean to the people of the region.

ONE OF the most enraging characteristics of many Arabs - to a Westerner, at least - is their ability to admire a leader for his strength, however brutal or wicked he may be. A dictator's ability to achieve his ends through brute force seems, at times, to excuse his utter lack of compassion or integrity. 'I know Saddam is a bad man,' a Beirut publisher remarked last week with a chilling glitter in his eye. 'But you've got to admit he's a powerful guy. He's the only Arab prepared to stand up to America.' Less urbane was the Lebanese airport official who bunched his right hand in the local expression of strength and asked pointedly: 'Saddam is big - Saddam is tough, uh? He's going to teach the Americans?'

How could the Arabs admire this monster, we ask ourselves? Do they not believe he gassed the Kurds at Halabja, that he gassed Iranians during his eight-year aggression against Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic republic? Do they not know of the round-the-clock hangings, the Kurdish mass executions, the torture and the 'Palace of Termination' in Baghdad, from whose gates no victim leaves who is not dead in body or mind? Do they not remember that Saddam modelled himself on one of the century's two greatest mass murderers, Josef Stalin? And the answer, sadly, is that they do know all this.

But it is Saddam who has repeatedly announced his preparedness to fight for Palestine. He is the only Arab leader who was prepared to challenge both Israel and America. He can see - as many pro-Western Arab leaders have observed with rather more discretion - that there are double standards at work over the Middle East.

George Bush liberated Kuwait and promised his new world order - and under America's protection, Kuwait organised the biggest mass expulsion of civilians in more than four decades. President Bush promised the Arabs a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He persuaded them to sit down with the Israelis, then allowed the talks to drift on into paralysis until Israel, unable to crush the growing Islamic revolt in the Occupied Territories, expelled 415 Palestinians to Lebanon against international law. At that point, the Palestinian delegation said it could no longer continue negotiations.

In the Gulf, the Arabs refused the offer of an Egyptian-Syrian military force along the Iraqi border. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia preferred American protection. And the US, which declared so ardently that it had no strategic designs on the Gulf, agreed to station its equipment in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and to bring in its soldiers when strategic interests demanded. Hence the Western allies were flying out of Saudi Arabia last week to bomb Iraq.

What are Arabs supposed to make of this? Who is standing up for the al-Awaissis and the Khalidis: George Bush (for whom read Bill Clinton) or Saddam Hussein? Arabs feel betrayed. Millions of Algerians have long supported Saddam. Jordan has always expressed sympathy. Syrian officials privately admit that huge numbers of Syrians supported Iraq in the Gulf war. Foreign correspondents in Damascus at the time were threatened with expulsion if they reported this. Lebanese Sunni Muslims, as well as Palestinians in Lebanon, openly express admiration for Saddam; even the Christian Maronites have kept links with Baghdad. Iraq is the only Arab country to have sited its Lebanese embassy in Christian east Beirut.

Feeling the tremors of Islamic discontent shaking the foundations of his own regime, even President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt - whose people have no reason to love Saddam after the terrible way he treated their ex- patriates in Baghdad before the Gulf war - no longer supports the allies. Last week, he implored Saddam to obey Security Council resolutions, but expressed Egypt's 'regret' that violence was used against Iraq. The Arab League publicly deplored the West's 'double standards'.

This is what Saddam achieved last week at the cost of a couple of missile batteries and a clutch of radar installations. So who won the Gulf War Part Two?

IT NEED NOT have been thus. Had the UN genuinely been freed from the shackles of the Cold War once the Soviet Union began to collapse, it might have been another story. We in the West tend to regard the UN as a weak, humiliated creature - more so than ever after its pathetic performance in Croatia and Bosnia. But with perverse logic, the Arabs viewed it as a strong institution.

Forgetting America's hijacking of the UN during the Korean war, when the Soviets made the error of boycotting the vote, Arabs look to the UN as a forum for comparatively free discussion in a dark world of superpower rivalry. True, Moscow's Arab allies, a gradually dwindling band as the decades pass, would not criticise the Soviet Union. And their rhetoric at the UN was as fossilised as in the dull party congresses with which they mimicked their 'socialist' mentors.

None the less, apart from the Cold War and even if the two superpowers ensured its continued impotence, the UN was a voice for the non-aligned world, close to whose fulcrum the Arabs felt themselves to be. It provided a sense of individuality and, more important, a conviction that injustices could be publicised and deplored, in the hope that one day internationally acknowledged wrongs might be righted.

Sometimes the resolutions were woolly and sometimes, in the General Assembly, as silly as they were anti-Jewish. Declaring that Zionism was racism was offensive to every Western country. Israel was not Nazi Germany. But those Security Council resolutions on the Middle East did become the starting-point of any discussion on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Indeed, Mr Bush's letter of invitation to the now-stalled peace talks based its content on UN resolutions.

Once the Cold War ended, the real test of the UN began. And at once, it was co-opted by the West. In 1990, after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, 'the West' included many Muslim states; which is why, although no UN flag could be seen in the Gulf, the Egyptians and Syrians, the Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, the Moroccans and Turks, even the Afghan rebels, lent either forces or territory to the allies.

Not so last week. The BBC told its listeners the air attacks were carried out by 'the Gulf war allies' - but they were not. Muslim nations, save for America's clients in the Gulf, uttered no word of praise. And the Arabs remembered history. Britain and France divided up their lands after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. America helped to create Israel. And it was these three countries alone which sent their planes to bomb Iraq last week.

That brings us back to Professor al-Awaissi on his frosty mountainside. In his diary last week, he was noting the hour he awoke on his foam-rubber mattress (7am) and his breakfast menu (cheese and smuggled rice). He wrote a chapter on the digging of a drainage ditch: al-Awaissi is, in effect, the deportees' archivist, and has recorded that the 413 expelled Palestinians still in Lebanon are the fathers and grandfathers of more than 2,000 children in the West Bank and Gaza. In Hebron, he teaches, appropriately, the history of the Ottoman Empire.

Just before I left Lebanon for Kuwait last week, I asked al- Awaissi what relationship he thought the West should maintain with the Arab world. His reply was not entirely reassuring, but this is what he said: 'Think of the long-term future, not the short- term future. Remember we are human beings like you, just as you see the Israelis are human beings. We want an Islamic state in our country. This is not wrong. We are not 'fundamentalists'. There are cruel Arabs, but you have had cruel men in your history, too. Israel's future will depend on its behaviour (sic). People should not take advantage of us. Take care not to let America dominate you; you people in England do not think about this, but you will care one day. Above all, be fair.'

Leading article, page 22

(Photographs omitted)

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