CAIRO — Moderate Arab leaders, after days of frustrating indecision over how to approach Iraq's takeover of Kuwait, have decided on a course of escalating pressure against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein designed to "rob him of . . . his moral legitimacy" while quietly backing outside economic sanctions, Arab diplomatic and government sources said Sunday.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had initially sought to leave Hussein "an exit" through which he could save face and voluntarily disengage his troops, but after a series of contacts with other Arab leaders over the past several days, the Egyptian leader is now convinced that Iraq has no plans to leave Kuwait soon, the sources said.
"The actual physical dislodging is going to be long and tortuous," predicted one Egyptian official. "We see all this talk of withdrawal as the start of a new phase, the phase of prevarication, lies and games."
Moderate Arab leaders opposed to the invasion will seek to isolate Hussein from the rest of the Arab world and thwart his attempt to project himself as a "Robin Hood" who has freed the wealth of Kuwait from a family of wealthy sheiks for the benefit of the populace, said one Arab diplomat familiar with the discussions.
However, many Arab leaders believe that it would be counterproductive to come out publicly in support of economic sanctions engineered by the West, fearing that such a move would allow Hussein to complain that he was the victim of Western "imperialism" and was alone among Arabs in combatting it.
At the same time, it is likely that most Arab leaders will quietly back the sanctions as a way of "tightening the noose" around Hussein's neck, said an Egyptian close to the deliberations.
"We want Arab reaction, not American reaction, so he (Hussein) can't say we're part of the imperialists," he said. "He is a demagogue who is trying to say this is for the benefit of the disinherited. We want to rob him of this, not to give him moral legitimacy."
Resolutions from the Arab League, the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council and several individual Arab states condemning the raid and demanding immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq were the first steps toward isolating Iraq, and a press assault deploring the invasion followed close behind.
Beyond those kinds of measures, however, the sources said they were uncertain how Arab leaders would proceed, prompting one Western diplomat to shrug and say: "I'm afraid they don't have any plan."
It was also not clear whether a campaign of resolutions and press attacks would be enough to satisfy the United States, which has been impatiently waiting for the Arabs to come up with "an Arab solution"--so far, without concrete results.
In a news conference Sunday, President Bush said he had been told on Friday by one Arab leader that it would take 48 hours to come up with an Arab-created solution to the crisis.
"That obviously has failed," Bush said. "And of course I'm disappointed that the matter hasn't been resolved before now."
Some sources said that Arab moderates hope a campaign to isolate Hussein would force him into joining a negotiated solution to the crisis with the help of a small cadre of Arab leaders, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
Opposition to the Arab League condemnation from Jordan, historically one of the leading moderates among the Arab states, also raised questions about whether any attempt to isolate Iraq would work.
Jordan's King Hussein, who has become increasingly close to the Iraqi regime in recent years, was said to be irked that Arab moderates pushed forward with the condemnation resolution after he had worked to persuade Saddam Hussein to attend a mini-summit with Arab leaders over the weekend in Saudi Arabia. The Iraqi strongman subsequently backed out, and the summit was postponed.
In an interview with British television Saturday, the Jordan monarch defended Hussein, calling him "a patriotic man who believes in his nation and its future and in establishing ties with others on the basis of mutual respect."
Jordan's prime minister, Mudar Badran, announced Sunday that Jordan will not recognize the new provisional military government established by Saddam Hussein in Kuwait because it would "obstruct Arab efforts to end the crisis between Kuwait and Iraq," a move the Egyptians saw as a positive one. But Badran still insisted that it took the right course in voting against the condemnation resolution.
Mubarak said during the weekend that he still hopes to convene a mini-summit of key Arab leaders and those closest to the current crisis, including at least Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and possibly Iraq and Kuwait as well.
"The idea is that under the umbrella of all this international pressure, they would like to start a kind of negotiating process with Saddam (Hussein) with a small nucleus of Arab countries and keep the solution inside the Arab world," said a Western diplomat familiar with the recent discussions.