WASHINGTON — The decision to send U.S. crews to Israel with sophisticated Patriot anti-missile batteries, a historic first in the long and deep alliance between the two nations, has elicited public alarm and private relief in the Arab world.
As a result, the deployment--aimed at countering Iraqi missile attacks on Israeli cities--is unlikely to split the fragile 28-nation coalition arrayed against Saddam Hussein in the Persian Gulf.
And that could spell failure for the Iraqi leader's last desperate bid to draw Israel into the gulf crisis and thereby shift its focus from Iraq's seizure of Kuwait to the broader Arab-Israeli conflict--in effect, to achieve with his Scud missiles what he failed to achieve in more than five months of diplomacy.
"Hussein is still fighting to win," said Edward Peck, former U.S. chief of mission in Baghdad. "But the only way he has left to win is to get Israel involved. Otherwise, he's as good as finished."
Arab envoys and U.S. analysts expect Hussein to continue trying to split his foes by using whatever resources he has left to provoke Israeli retaliation. That, as much as repelling the forces of the international coalition, has become a paramount goal for Baghdad.
"He's convinced his role in history will be written by those who say this is the man who could withstand punishing blows from the Americans and, in the midst, take the initiative against Israel," said William B. Quandt, a former National Security Council staff member now at the Brookings Institution, assessing the outlook that now drives the Iraqi leader.
But President Bush's quick decision to deploy U.S. Patriot missiles and crews in Israel, combined with the allies' continuing efforts to seek out and destroy Iraq's remaining Scud missile launchers, may spell the end of Hussein's best hope for dividing his foes.
To be sure, much depends on the effectiveness of the Patriots and the allies' interdiction campaign. If Hussein should begin inflicting heavy casualties on Israel, then it would almost certainly retaliate.
And if the retaliatory measures were drastic, they could impose serious strain on at least some of the coalition partners.
"What we would like to see is the containment of the war in order to solve the crisis of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait--whatever it takes," said a diplomat from a key Arab country. "Keeping Israel out of it is of utmost importance."
Not that Arab governments are pleased to have U.S.-manned Patriot missiles in Israel.
"This is certainly a qualitative increase in the level of their relationship," said a leading Arab envoy from a front-line country. "We're not fond of having Israel add to its arsenal. The Israelis would use them as part of their enormous military machine. While they are defensive, they give Israel an important edge. We can't welcome any addition."
On balance, however, Arab members of coalition deployed in the gulf are thought to be privately relieved that the Patriots could prevent Israel from entering the war against Iraq--and force them to take a public stand that might undermine the coalition.
Iraq's bombardment of Israel is seen as a last-ditch strategy. Its latest propaganda reflects the attempt to raise the political temperature.
A military statement broadcast by Baghdad Radio on Saturday charged that Israel had launched missiles against the Habbaniyah air base, 45 miles west of the Iraqi capital, in response to two nights of Iraqi missile attacks on Tel Aviv.
It also alleged that Israeli warplanes, flying from bases in Saudi Arabia and other unspecified nearby countries, had bombed Iraq. Although it said the strikes were "frustrated," the military communique promised to "present some of this evidence to the public at the appropriate time."
The state-controlled radio reported that Western appeals for Israel not to retaliate were "subterfuge. . . . Appeals to Israel not to participate in the aggression are aimed at deceiving public opinion."
Arab analysts believe the Patriot deployment will not deter Hussein from continuing to try to provoke Israel.
"There'll be more (Iraqi missiles) to come," predicted Riad Ajami, a political economist who toured Iraq last year.
"He's (Hussein) a man who would never go into a poker game and put all his assets on the table. He's resourceful, and he still has a bag of tricks," Ajami said.
"Over the next week, he will continue to see if he can extract some military gain, basically trying to engage Israel and split the coalition. He'll bet that Israel has limits, even with Patriots. Meanwhile, he has long staying power--we know that much about him."
Added Quandt, "He's not playing the subtle game (Syrian President Hafez) Assad or (former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel) Nasser would have in a similar situation, acknowledging defeat but trying to craft it into political gains."
"He wants to make it go on as long as possible and prove that he's the toughest guy around," Quandt said.
Yet, at least for the time being, most analysts believe the coalition will be tougher and that the three non-gulf Arab members--Egypt, Syria and Morocco--will hold together.
"Even if Israel reacts, I think it will be a blip on the screen, and I wouldn't anticipate any rearrangement of the coalition," Ajami said.
"Egypt has to stay in, particularly for economic reasons. The Syrians are a bit of a question mark, but they are not terribly needed anyway. And the North Africans are away from the fire and the heat.
"They can all afford to make some statement about their unhappiness at what is unfolding," he added. 'But they will not pull out.'