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Arab nations work to help Iraq

By DAVID HIRST

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 4, 2000


DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- The flight of international civilian aircraft into Baghdad is becoming a competitive stampede as one Arab country after another has announced, or carried out, its intention of joining France and Russia in breaking the 10-year aerial blockade. This may not breach the essence of U.N. sanctions -- the restrictions on trade and external controls on Iraqi finances -- but Iraq is not hiding its delighted conviction that it is a key breakthrough in that direction.

According to Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, who welcomes every new arrival at Saddam International Airport, it marks "the beginning of the collapse of the embargo," and, according to Oil Minister Amer Rashid, "sanctions will be eroded, disintegrated -- the whole policy of America toward Iraq has failed."

After last week's pioneering flights from Jordan and Yemen, aircraft from at least five other Arab states -- Syria, Libya, Egypt, Morocco and Sudan -- are expected to follow suit, sponsored either by governments or non-government organizations, such as Egypt's People's Delegation for Lifting the Embargo on Iraq, and Sudan's Popular Organization for Supporting the Iraqi People.

The Iraqi view is widely shared in the Arab world. Arab governments are contending that the flights are "humanitarian" only. They also argue that U.N. resolutions do not formally prohibit commercial passenger flights: That is a "U.S. interpretation," said one of the delegation on the Yemeni flight to Baghdad on Friday.

But despite these justifications -- mainly designed to rebut U.S. censure -- neither Arab officialdom nor the public makes much effort to disguise the belief that, in reality, the flights amount to a serious erosion of the whole edifice of "containment" thrown up around the Iraqi regime and that the ultimate objective is to dismantle it altogether. Kuwait's al-Watan newspaper voiced a widely held sentiment when it said last week that the collapse of sanctions may now be "only a matter of time" and that President Saddam Hussein's international rehabilitation may become unstoppable unless efforts to overthrow him are stepped up.

It is clearly not for any particular love of Hussein that a large part of the Arab world is now rallying with increasing vigor behind the anti-sanctions cause. Thus a commentator in the Saudi-owned pan-Arab newspaper al-Hayat accepted the standard U.S. view that Hussein himself was largely responsible for his people's sufferings under sanctions. "But while it may be true," he added, "that Baghdad is "exaggerating or exploiting' the tragedy, that tragedy must still weigh on humanity's conscience."

The sanctions have long been reviled in the Arab world because they inflict pain on fellow Arabs and are held to be deeply unfair -- typical of double standards practiced by a U.S. superpower that penalizes Arabs for their misdemeanors and violations of U.N. resolutions but not Israel. Even such pro-American governments as Jordan and Egypt have been growing increasingly critical.

The United States commands the seemingly solid support of only Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, Iraq's two most directly threatened Arab neighbors. Both have signaled their strong disapproval of the Baghdad flights, and Kuwaiti legislators have demanded punitive action against the countries responsible.

But elsewhere the flights are widely commended as a simple expression of national dignity, of self-assertion by Arab regimes too long subservient to American will. Patriotic emotion is mixed up with a sense of shame that it was foreigners who led the way. When, last month, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez became the first head of state to visit Baghdad since the Gulf War, a Syrian commentator wrote: "A heartfelt "thank you' to this proud South American who so bravely disobeyed the arrogant Yankees, and exposed the spinelessness of our hypocritical, subservient and tyrannical leaders."

Public opinion clearly does not take the official humanitarian pretext seriously. Jordanian columnist Fahd Fanek said that "it is not just 80 passengers which our plane took to Baghdad but 5-million Jordanians and 250-million Arabs." Reports say that Jordan -- despite its close ties to the United States -- deliberately sought to be the first Arab country to break the aerial embargo. It had the most to gain. Just as, after Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, King Hussein of Jordan's refusal to join the U.S.-led military coalition against him brought the monarch immense public support, so now the popularity of Jordan's King Abdullah has soared.

What seems to have emboldened such pro-American governments is not merely the prospect of public acclaim, but the realization that the overall balance of advantage has shifted in favor of Iraq -- and any Arab state ready to lend it succor -- and against the United States. The pan-Arab newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi, long sympathetic to Iraq, attributed this mainly to the upsurge in world oil prices. "The U.S. hegemony," it said, "is in a state of paralysis and confusion, appealing to the oil states to cooperate with it, while Iraq has become a vital necessity, possessing cards by which it could redouble the troubles of its enemies."

Iraq now has more to offer its economically hard-hit neighbors. Its U.N.-sanctioned food-for-oil purchasing power has more than doubled in three years, putting it in a position where it can choose the partners it does business with. This is another reason why Jordan rushed to be first. It seems to have decided that cooperation with Iraq, which furnishes cut-price oil and lucrative business opportunities, is worth more than what is supposed to come its way for boycotting it: U.S. aid, financial backing from oil-rich Persian Gulf countries, or trade with Israel.

Arab governments are also increasingly swayed by the view that sanctions are not only becoming morally and popularly unsustainable but wholly unproductive, either in their official U.N. aim -- to divest Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction -- or in what is seen as their unofficial U.S. one: to bring down the regime. They note that it is now nearly two years since U.N. arms inspectors have set foot in Iraq and that the U.S. government that until the end of 1998 threatened, and used, force on behalf of the inspection regime now seems to shy away from confrontation. They also note that although the United States, through the Iraqi Liberation Act, is formally committed to helping the Iraqi opposition install a "democratic, representative" government in Hussein's place, in practice it seems deeply unwilling to take the risk -- that of direct, large-scale military involvement -- to which such a policy could expose it.

The upshot, said a commentator in al-Hayat, is that "it is no longer so much Saddam who is "in a box,' it is the U.S. -- in the sense that it simply does not know what to do about him."

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