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THE WORLD

Arabs Fear Regional Jolt of Iraq War

Security: Leaders are afraid that the Mideast, already racked by crisis, would be further destabilized if the U.S. invaded, officials say.

September 16, 2002|MICHAEL SLACKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Arab leaders are unanimously opposed to an American invasion of Iraq because they are afraid it will lead to greater instability and violence across an already crisis-plagued region, according to Western diplomats, Arab officials and political observers.

The Arab community has tried to persuade Washington to cool down its war talk, insisting that an attack against Iraq would be an attack on the whole "Arab nation." And it has leaned on Baghdad to let U.N. weapons inspectors back in, hoping that the move would make an invasion less likely.

But both approaches have so far proved unsuccessful--and that is making many people here uneasy.

"They are very, very concerned about the fallout from American military action," said a Western diplomat based here who spoke on condition he not be identified. "They see it happening against the backdrop of unparalleled anti-American sentiment that has already put pressure on moderate regimes. They are very worried."

But a regional calculus is also taking place, as leaders try to figure out how to balance their need to maintain public order with their desire not to completely alienate the White House. Although the leaderships' public posture remains one of solidarity with the people of Iraq, there are signs that some are trying to hedge their bets.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 04, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 5 inches; 192 words Type of Material: Correction
Northern Iraq--A Sept. 16 story in Section A stated that the northern part of Iraq is not predominantly populated by Muslims of the Sunni sect. In fact, the area is a stronghold for Kurds, who are mostly Sunni Muslim but not Arab.

In the Persian Gulf region, for example, every government has publicly objected to an invasion, but several have allowed U.S. military forces to make war preparations on their soil. And on Sunday, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al Faisal, told CNN that if the United Nations authorized a strike on Iraq, the Saudis would be "obliged to follow through" if the United States needed bases in the kingdom.

According to the Western diplomat here, the Saudis "recognize [Washington is] probably going to do it this way.... When it comes down to it, they don't want to be left on the sidelines looking irrelevant."

Still, the region is already in turmoil. Many people are angry at the United States because they believe that it used the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as an excuse to advance its self-interest. They are angry because of what they see as America's one-sided support for Israel. An attack on Iraq now, many fear, would make everything worse. The country could break apart. The Arab "street" might rise up. A cornered Saddam Hussein could hurl chemical or biological weapons into neighboring nations.

Each country in the region also has its individual concerns. Saudi Arabia fears that an attack on Iraq would complicate its desire to maintain ties with Washington and would undermine the war against terrorism. Jordan worries that it would be overrun by refugees and lose its supply of cheap oil. Egypt is worried that its people would take to the streets in demonstrations that could turn against the regime. And Iran, largely Muslim although not Arab, is not too keen on having a pro-American regime on its border.

There is one anxiety, however, that touches moderate and hard-line governments alike: the fear that post-Hussein Iraq would be even more dangerous, more volatile than it is now. The anxiety is magnified because in Hussein's Iraq there are no independent government institutions to speak of and no obvious opposition group waiting in the wings to assume power.

"Who will run things?" said a top government official from the region who asked not to be identified. "The military? There will be a coup every week. All these people of the opposition will not stand one day in Iraq. They have no credibility in Iraq. They have no political or tribal depth in Iraq."

The worry that Iraq will unravel is a result of both the country's religious and ethnic makeup. Hussein and his allies belong to the main branch of Islam, the Sunni sect. Although Sunnis make up the vast majority of the world's Muslims, they are a minority in Iraq. The bulk of the population is Shiite Muslims, a sect that broke off from the majority in a dispute over who would succeed the prophet Muhammad as caliph.

In addition, southern Iraq is the location of two of the Shiites' holiest shrines.

That has people in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, anxious. Neighboring Iran, the only country in the region controlled by Shiites, has a track record of trying to export its revolution and its fiery brand of Islam.

Conservative Islamic regimes in the Persian Gulf have looked to Hussein's ironfisted government, if nothing else, as a bulwark against Shiite aspirations.

If Hussein's regime collapses and the U.S. fails to fill the power vacuum quickly, there is concern that Iran might try to encourage Iraq's Shiite-dominated south either to break off as an independent country or to merge with Iran. Saudi Arabia, the most conservative of Islamic countries, is not eager to have a Shiite neighbor on its border.

"This is no doubt a big concern," said Saleh ibn Humaid, chairman of the Shura Council, an appointed advisory board in the kingdom. "It is a worry for the whole world."

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