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World View : Multinationals Stand Firm as Deadline Nears : Gung-ho for battle? Not exactly but the allies accept the 'logic of war' with Iraq.


PARIS — At times during these tense past five months, it appeared that the unwieldy coalition of nations allied against Iraq might be in danger of unraveling.

Maverick peace initiatives, anti-war demonstrations and negative public opinion polls in many of the nations--ranging from economically mighty Japan to the minuscule Duchy of Luxembourg--tested the unprecedented coalition put together by the Bush Administration in the months of meticulous, detailed diplomatic maneuvering.

Just before Christmas, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said he was troubled by "varying levels of commitment in terms of willingness to use offensive military action to achieve our objective" among the allies. Cheney pointedly excluded France and Syria from the list of nations he felt could be depended upon in the event of military action.

But even as the calendar brings the danger of war ever nearer, doubts have faded about the coalition's willingness to fight--at least for the limited objective of liberating Kuwait. To resurrect that famous Vietnam-era phrase, nobody is exactly gung-ho. But what the French call "the logic of war" has been widely, if solemnly, accepted.

Commented John Roper, spokesman for the Kurt Gasteyger Institute of Security Studies in Paris: "The people had reluctantly accepted that if there is no scope for negotiations, one has to draw the inevitable conclusion--war."

Syria, with 20,000 troops and a significant number of tanks in Saudi Arabia, remains the only major question mark among the countries with forces on the ground, mostly because of the unpredictable personality of its leader, President Hafez Assad.

Assad appealed to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein over the weekend to withdraw from Kuwait in the name of Arab unity. But Syrian statements regarding the conditions under which its troops now in Saudi Arabia might fight appear equivocal. Foreign Minister Farouk Shareh said last Saturday that they were on hand "for defensive purposes" and that Damascus is currently "consulting our Arab brothers in the gulf" about future operations. But he specifically ruled out participating in any anti-Iraq coalition if Israel joined in.

On the other hand, Egypt, next to Saudi Arabia the most important Arab partner in the coalition, seems more poised and ready than ever with its 35,000 well-trained troops.

In a remarkable display of cohesion in a chaotic land, the Egyptian public remains overwhelmingly supportive of President Hosni Mubarak's policy in the Persian Gulf region, including Egypt's leading position in the Arab alliance against Iraq.

Even the noisiest opposition groups, such as the Wafd and the Muslim Brotherhood, have not criticized Hosni Mubarak's gulf policy, although the Muslim Brotherhood is vehemently opposed to the presence of Western forces in Saudi Arabia.

While Egyptians tend to be suspicious of the motives of the United States in the conflict, their hatred of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and abhorrence of the invasion of Kuwait were enough to tip them strongly to the American side.

"We are even more enthusiastic than the Americans," said a 37-year-old Cairo taxi driver. "Egyptians hate thieves. If somebody steals from your brother, it's your right to teach them a lesson."

France, with 10,000 troops in Saudi Arabia as well as important air and naval forces deployed in the gulf region, appeared to some observers as the Western ally most likely to balk if war broke out. There were even deep divisions within the French Socialist government itself on the issue.

Just a few days ago French Defense Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement--who before the conflict had been one of the founders of the Franco-Iraq Friendship Assn.--urged the American side to make a "small concession" to the Iraqis by agreeing to a proposed international conference on Palestine in exchange for the withdrawal of Iraqi troops from Kuwait. To the Bush Administration, this idea of "linkage" is anathema because it could be viewed as a reward for Hussein for his invasion of Kuwait.

However, President Francois Mitterrand removed much of the ambiguity of the French policy during a press conference Jan. 9, the day of the failed peace talks in Geneva between Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz.

Like a father talking to a son whom he is sending off to battle, the 74-year-old Mitterrand lectured his people about the horrible price of war. But, invoking the glory of previous French battles, Mitterrand said the gulf is a just cause.

"France cannot be absent from the battlefield on which are positioned the defenders of international law," Mitterrand said, "without losing a little of what she has gained in the course of history. France will take part in the armed conflict as a regrettable and fearful solution to the situation."

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