KUWAIT CITY — A second round of U.S. air strikes against Iraq met with growing unease Sunday in the Arab world, where there is a new conviction that the low-level attacks will only increase popular support for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Indeed, an increasing number of Arabs--even in Kuwait, brutalized by the Iraqi occupation two years ago--are questioning the wisdom of seeking to unseat the Iraqi leader at a time when there is no alternative leader and when rival Iran's military growth menaces the rest of the Persian Gulf.
Virtual silence about the new military campaign among the Persian Gulf emirates that joined with the West to unseat Iraq from Kuwait two years ago reflects Arab leaders' growing ambivalence about Hussein and fears that their own increasingly radical Islamic constituencies will rally to Iraq's side in the face of new U.S. attacks.
"I think the alliance is faltering. The Gulf no longer wants Saddam to go, because he is the last hope to keep Iraq stable and keep Iran at bay," said Abdullah Shayji, a Kuwaiti political scientist familiar with official thinking.
"The raids are backfiring in the Arab world. Not a single Arab country has spoken up (in favor of the strikes) except Kuwait, because they don't want to upset their own people," he said. "The reason you haven't heard any response from the Gulf is they're scared to death. They don't want to exacerbate a tense situation."
Arab League leader Esmat Abdel-Meguid strongly condemned the initial allied air strike against targets in southern Iraq last week, calling it "a threat to the territorial integrity of Iraq and to the safety of the Iraqi people."
Abdel-Meguid and a large number of Arab leaders and intellectuals have accused the West of applying double standards by protecting oil-rich Kuwait with force while ignoring the plight of Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina and by forcing Iraq and Libya to comply with U.N. resolutions while failing to enforce similar resolutions against Israel as more than 400 deported Palestinians endure winter conditions in a no-man's-land in southern Lebanon.
"People, even in Kuwait, are becoming sick of it," one Kuwaiti intellectual said. "The old thing keeps popping up: Why are you punishing Saddam Hussein and ignoring (Serbian President Slobodan) Milosevic?"
Even moderate Egyptians normally sympathetic to U.S. positions in the Middle East are wavering on the issue of the air strikes. "People are saying: 'What is the importance of Saddam and Iraq today? There is no rush. The issue where people are dying is in Bosnia and Somalia and the Palestinians of Lebanon.' To ignore all these issues and to beat an old horse is an old game. No one wants to hit Saddam now," said Tahseen Bashir, a Cairo political analyst with close ties to the Egyptian regime.
"Saddam wants to draw attention to himself, and we should not play his game," Bashir added.
In a 90-minute speech Sunday, the Iraqi leader tried to push the same emotional buttons that won him broad-based popular support among Palestinians, Jordanians, North Africans and others during the Gulf crisis with his appeal to Arab unity, Islamic struggle and resistance against the West.
To the fury of the Kuwaiti government, he launched a direct appeal to the Kuwaiti people, calling them "one people" with the Iraqis and criticizing Kuwait's ruling Sabah family.
"Your brothers in Baghdad never put you Kuwaitis any day in one basket with the traitors of Sabah," he said. "They act as if they had rented Kuwait, during which time they achieve the principles of their masters (the West) in a manner hostile to the people and history."
Kuwait's information minister, Saud al Sabah, said the government wished to express its "disgust" with the speech and Hussein.
"It shows to the world how bankrupt this man is politically, militarily and mentally. He kept repeating the same old stories we heard before, and I would call him the father of all stupidity as far as we're concerned," Saud said.
Privately, however, many Gulf leaders worry about the possible consequences of a power vacuum in Iraq if Hussein were to be overthrown, an outcome they fear could lead to a Balkanization in the region if there were no strong leader to hold Iraq's disparate Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite populations together.
"Some Kuwaitis now claim that even if Saddam is gone, it doesn't matter a whole lot, since every living Iraqi firmly believes that Kuwait is part of Iraq," said one Western diplomat in the Kuwaiti capital.
Also, Arab leaders fear that a Western military campaign against Iraq will fuel Islamic fundamentalist fervor already combatting regimes in Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Yemen, Jordan and several Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
Egypt's oldest Muslim fundamentalist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, was immediately critical of the strike on Iraq, saying it sought to overshadow the "crimes being carried out by the West on the Muslim people in Palestine, Somalia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Libya."