AMMAN, Jordan — When U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright begins consultations with Arab leaders today to prepare the region for possible military action against Iraq, she will find them unanimous in wishing that the problem be resolved through diplomatic means.
Nevertheless, there are indications that at least some of Iraq's neighbors have come reluctantly to accept the possibility of force, particularly because Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has been so brazen lately in his effort to circumvent United Nations arms inspections in defiance of the U.N. Security Council.
At the same time, officials and analysts in the region emphasize, any military action by the United States and its allies should be structured to target the regime itself and to spare the Iraqi people as much as possible.
As Iraq has waxed defiant, ignoring warnings from Washington and the Security Council, and as the United States and Britain have painstakingly marshaled military forces in the Persian Gulf, anger that the U.S. administration is acting precipitously has become less evident in the region.
Rather, a mood of grudging resignation about any coming clash has descended on Middle Eastern capitals.
"We cannot stop or prevent whatever action that the United States takes," commented Jordanian Foreign Minister Fayez Tarawneh in an interview last week. "If it happens, we hope it will be directed toward his [Hussein's] targets and not [be] haphazard and not civilians."
One veteran Western diplomat said that, in the current atmosphere, the United States will probably get a "yellow light" from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and perhaps other Persian Gulf countries to proceed with an attack, even though Arab leaders may stop short of publicly endorsing the use of force.
Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the first occupied and the second threatened by Iraq in 1990-91, are seen as the countries most inclined to support action against the Iraqi regime, but even their support is not a given.
But other Arab countries that took part in the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq seven years ago, such as Egypt and Syria, now counsel against military action.
A sense that the United States has developed an "end game" after a seven-year economic embargo on Iraq would also make it easier for Arab states to stomach a military strike, several analysts said.
If the institutions underpinning the Iraqi regime, such as elite troops and guards controlled by Hussein and his two sons, are targeted, a military operation would probably meet with some tacit support in the region, suggested a senior Jordanian editor, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"It depends how they do it," he said. "Just a show of force, for the wrong reasons against the wrong targets, would help neither Jordan or anybody else."
On the other hand, "if Americans are serious about [bringing] democracy, human rights and pluralism to Iraq, then people will support it," he said.
Besides concern for the Iraqi people, much criticism of any military strike in the region has boiled down to a belief that it will not work.
"What are the concrete results? Can you get to nail the man that we all want to nail?" asked one high-ranking official in Jordan.
So far, whenever the Iraqi leader has survived attacks, he has managed to increase his aura as a hero for many ordinary Arabs, several analysts noted.
Arab League Secretary-General Ahmad Esmat Abdel Meguid said last week that his 22-member league considers the military option "rejected and unacceptable."
Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa said it would "create more problems than it solves."
But sympathy for the Iraqi leadership, as distinct from the people of Iraq, has waned in recent months as the Baghdad regime has repeatedly stopped U.N. inspectors from visiting so-called presidential sites and has objected to the makeup of inspection teams.
A shift away from Saddam Hussein has been particularly marked in Jordan, where King Hussein and much of the public were outraged in December when four Jordanian nationals were hanged in Iraq for petty smuggling.
"He is killing people left, right and center," commented one Jordanian journalist of Saddam Hussein.
However, there is no denying that much of the Arab public is likely to react angrily to any military strike.
In Bahrain, Assayed Zahra wrote last week in the Akhbaral Khalij newspaper that even if Baghdad has dragged its feet about cooperating with the United Nations, that is insufficient grounds for war.
"The fact of the matter is that what the U.S. is planning is blatant aggression, without justification or legitimacy of any kind," he said.
Egyptian Markram Mohammed Ahmed, editor of the Al Mussawar weekly, said in an interview that a military strike should be ruled out.
"Can the military strike actually destroy Saddam personally? No way," he said. "U.S. missiles and fighter planes may be guaranteed to level a building . . . but can they guarantee an end to his rule?"
In a similar vein, the Kuwaiti daily Al Watan said military action would be welcomed by Persian Gulf countries only if it was aimed at "ending the [Iraqi] regime forever."
Saudi Arabia's leading daily, Asharq al Awsat, in line with the neutral public stance taken by the Saudi leadership, neither endorsed nor opposed the use of force in an editorial last week. The paper instead shifted blame onto Hussein, pointing out that the Iraqi regime could avert an attack by starting to cooperate with the U.N. inspectors.
Thus far, Arab responses on both the official and popular levels have been murky, noted Abdelbari Atwan, editor of the pan-Arab newspaper Al Quds al Arabi.
"Most of the major Arab capitals have kept ominously quiet about the matter, as though they tacitly support such an attack," he said, according to the Mideast Mirror monitoring service.