- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 23, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 23 (UPI) — The highlight of the Arab League foreign ministers' summit in Cairo on Monday is likely to be that Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri managed to get there. He has not said how he slipped out of Baghdad to show up in Damascus on Saturday and from there flew to the Egyptian capital. The question is whether his journey was worth the obvious risk.

Sabri has said he will seek a strong condemnation of the U.S.-led war against Iraq, "which is denounced by all angry Arab people," as he put it. He will demand that all Arab governments, particularly "the traitors and the dwarfs" — his term for the rulers of Kuwait — "stop providing military facilities to U.S. troops attacking Iraq."

What Sabri is likely to get is a strongly worded call for a halt to the fighting and a return to negotiation. But privately, his Arab League colleagues will be praying for Saddam Hussein's quick demise.

The U.S.-led attack on Iraq has trapped many Arab leaders between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand is Washington's pressure on leading allies like Jordan, Egypt, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia to back the U.S.-led coalition's war to remove Saddam.

On the other, there is the groundswell of anti-war protest in the "Arab Street" where — improbably — Saddam has become a folk hero.

Cairo, Jordan, Beirut, Sanaa in Yemen and Bahrain have all witnessed clashes of varying degrees of seriousness between riot police and demonstrators enraged by what the United States is doing in Iraq. Even in the sleepy capital of the North African state of Mauritania, Nouakchott, a city that periodically sinks under layers of sand from a heavy sandstorm, anti-war protesters demonstrated outside the U.S. embassy.

In the Egyptian capital, tension remained high Sunday following three days of protests with tens of thousands of demonstrators surging through downtown streets.

Police arrested hundreds demonstrators. And when a leading Egyptian parliamentarian, Hamdin Sabahi, tabled a question to the minister of the interior Sunday asking about "police excesses" during the demonstrations, they arrested him as well. According to reliable reports from Cairo, police came to his house and took him away in an unmarked car.

In Jordan, United Press International editor-at-large Arnaud de Borchgrave reported, senior officials complained that their children were turning against them for not speaking out against President George W. Bush's war.

Arab officials fear that huge demonstrations in teeming Middle East cities could spin out of control and threaten the stability of the respective governments. This is because public anger is not directed against the Bush administration alone. Demonstrators attack Arab governments for failing to support Iraq.

In the Cairo, protesters shouted slogans accusing the government of "cowardice" for not taking a stand against the war. But observers said the frustration often spills over into other areas of discontent such as the slow pace of change and government corruption.

Unlike the first Gulf War, when Arab countries gave broad support to the U.S. drive to liberate Kuwait, this time the Arab Street has been a major factor in preventing Washington's attempts to bring the Arabs into the anti-Iraq coalition.

This reflects the failure of the Bush administration's public relations campaign to convince the Arab public of the need to go to war. Despite access to satellite television, such as CNN and its Arab counterpart al-Jazeera (which is critical of the United States, but accurate), deep suspicion of U.S. intentions has lingered.

The popular Arab perception of the war is that it is driven by oil interests, Israel, and a subversive U.S. strategy to colonize the Arab world. This view gained wider Arab support when, in the first phases of the attack, U.S. and coalition troops took possession of H1 and H2 airfields in western Iraq, and also gave high priority to securing Iraqi oilfields.

It was from the two western airfields that Iraq fired more than 30 Scud missiles into Israel in the first Gulf War. With H1 and H2 secure, diplomats said they knew of no other possible missile launching area that would bring Israel within range.

Looming over the situation is the festering sore of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Before the fighting, President George W. Bush tried to establish linkage between the removal of Saddam Hussein and the resumption of the peace process. Bush said that once the war was over work would begin on the Middle East road map for peace. But the Middle East was unimpressed, and Arab commentators called it a cynical attempt to garner Arab Street support.

So Arab governments have a predicament on their hands — one which can only apparently be solved by a quick, relatively bloodless war, plus tough handling of street protests.

After that, another predicament looms. This is Bush's much-vaunted introduction of democracy in post-Saddam's Iraq — and his proclamation of it as the dawn of a free and democratic age in the Arab world.

If this prospect did not seem so unlikely, Arab leaders would regard it as another challenge to their position.

But de Borchgrave reported that senior Jordanian officials "guffaw" at the idea of implanting democracy in Iraq and in the Middle East generally. "Democracy without a strong and prosperous middle classis a recipe for paralysis," de Borchgrave was told.

The widespread view among analysts is that Saddam's most likely successor will not be former exile politicians but an Iraqi general the Americans feel comfortable with.

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