- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 23, 2003

LONDON, March 23 (UPI) — Even the most meticulous and best thought-out military plans go amiss once hostilities commence. That is the unwritten rule of war.

From the very instant the Pentagon planners went to work designing the removal of Saddam Hussein from Baghdad, the possibility of something going wrong never left their collective minds. And good planners try to plan even for that — the unforeseeable.

One of the dangers that undoubtedly was never far from the minds of the war planners, was indeed the threat of the conflict spilling over into neighboring countries and enlarging the theater of operations. Going into Iraq as they did, presented a number of perilous uncertainties for the American-led coalition. There were numerous unforeseen elements to consider such as Israel, the Kurds, Iran, and ethnic and religious sensitivities.

First, would Israel be dragged into the conflict? Military planners worried Saddam would launch Scud missiles at Israel, as indeed he did during the first Gulf War in 1991, after Iraq invaded Kuwait. Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned that this time his country would not stand idly by as it did in the previous Gulf War, but would retaliate.

Were this to occur, there is little doubt that it would escalate the conflict. Israel's participation in the war would infuriate the Arab and Muslim world even further, giving Saddam greater popular support in the Arab street.

Unlike the general apathy displayed by Arabs when the United States invaded Afghanistan, there have been numerous protests throughout the Middle East — some of them violent. Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets in recent days to voice their anger and vent their frustration at the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq.

Since the commencement of hostilities in the early hours of Thursday, and while international television channels beamed live images of nearly every move made by coalition forces in Iraq, police forces have been called out to confront angry popular outbursts in a number of Middle Eastern cities. In Amman, Cairo, Beirut and Sana'a, police forces have clashed with protestors. In the Yemeni capital the protests, which turned violent, left four people dead.

Another demonstration in the Turkish capital, Ankara, also turned violent when a group of peace activists ignored police orders to disperse after placing a black wreath outside the American embassy, and then started to march toward the city center. The protesters threw eggs and stones at police, who responded with a baton charge. Though not Arab, Turkey is a Muslim country.

The fear — both in Washington and in many Arab capitals — is that Arab and Islamic resentment could easily be turned against Arab governments. Numerous Arab regimes have come under severe criticism from opposition groups for either cooperating with the coalition, or for simply standing by while an Arab country is attacked. Political instability in the Mideast is the last thing Washington wants to see at this time.

Arab leaders are already under much criticism for having not been proactive enough during the months leading up to the U.S.-led assault on Iraq. They have taken much heat for having failed to find a peaceful solution to the crisis. As the United States, Britain, France and Germany battled it out diplomatically in the United Nations, there was hardly an Arab voice that made itself heard.

While some efforts were undertaken by the Arab League, Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region, non were seen to be aggressive or serious enough to prevent the war. Many people in the region feel that Arab leaders simply threw their hands up and gave in to U.S. pressure.

But that is only one of the problems.

There is also the danger emanating from Turkey's involvement, a staunch U.S. ally, and a key NATO member. Just three days into the conflict, Turkey was reported to have suddenly moved troops over its border into Iraqi Kurdistan.

Looking back at unfolding events of these last few weeks, this would, of course, explain Turkey's reluctance in allowing U.S. combat troops to transit through its territory in order to establish a much needed second front in northern Iraq.

The presence of American soldiers along the Iraqi-Turkish frontier would have hampered Ankara's design to profit from the chaotic environment offered by the war and quickly establish a foothold in that region.

While the Turkish parliament accepted a resolution on Thursday allowing foreign troops the use its airspace, Ankara, however, made sure the agreement did not extend to foreign troops using its territory.

Washington opposes any move by Turkey to enter northern Iraq and asked that the number of soldiers reported to be stationed there be reduced.

Turkey said its troops were dispatched to stop the influx of refugees moving across the border from Iraq once the fighting started. Washington argued that the incursion of Turkish troops into Iraq could well prompt Iran to adopt similar measures.

Which of course brings us to Iran. While the Islamic Republic has no lost love for Saddam, the majority of Iraqis — roughly 65 percent — are Shiite Muslims, as are Iranians. As coalition troops move north towards Baghdad, they will engage Iraqi troops in the cities of Najaf and Kerbala, two of Shiite Islam's holiest sites. They will be also treading on very thin ice and have to take cultural and religious sensitivities into account.

A repeat of actions taken by U.S. Marines on Saturday in Umm Qasr, in the south, for example, when the Iraqi flag was lowered and briefly replaced with the Stars and Stripes after a battle in which Iraqi troops were defeated, should be avoided at all costs.

Otherwise, the much-anticipated Kabul moment, where local inhabitants rush out greet American troops as liberators, could well turn into a Beirut nightmare, when the local population — mainly Lebanese Shiites — turned on the American Marines.

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