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War with Iraq / Persian Gulf reaction | The World

Arab Nations Work to Veil Cooperation With U.S.

March 20, 2003|Tyler Marshall and Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writers

DOHA, Qatar — With public opinion almost everywhere in the region overwhelmingly opposed to war, Arab governments providing help to American military forces have sometimes gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal their assistance to the U.S.-led effort against Saddam Hussein.

In clinging to a strategy based mainly on denial, nations such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others in the Persian Gulf region hope that they will be able to contain a potential backlash, although some worry about the longer-term effect of such tactics.

In Cairo, a senior official was asked by a Western journalist recently if Egypt had granted the United States overflight rights for combat planes.

"I haven't seen anything on that," he said. After pausing, he added: "Yes, Egypt has, but it's not something that needs mentioning. That would just inflame things."

Such official attitudes explain why there's been virtually no media mention in Egypt of the U.S. warships passing through the Suez Canal in recent days.

In Qatar, home of the U.S. Central Command's forward headquarters, where Army Gen. Tommy Franks is directing the war, officials have spoken publicly about the estimated 7,000-strong American military presence, but they are still trying hard to reduce its visibility.

Authorities in Qatar have blocked media access to the Al Udeid Air Base near Doha, where U.S. strike aircraft are based. Even so, some things have been hard to hide. Last month, the country held a meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in which parties agreed that "Islamic states abstain from participating in any military action targeting ... Iraq." Yet as Qatari Foreign Minister Sheik Hamad Jassim ibn Jaber al Thani read out the communique, he had to compete with the sounds of an American C-130 passing over the hotel conference center.

As recently as six weeks ago, Jordanian Prime Minister Ali abu Ragheb told a packed news conference with German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer that his country "hasn't been requested to do any kind of arrangements to support the United States in such an act" of war. Jordan's information minister dismissed media reports about the presence of U.S. special forces in the nation, calling it "totally untrue and baseless."

A government minister acknowledged privately, though, that between 2,000 and 3,000 U.S. military personnel were in the country.

Of all the Persian Gulf states, however, Saudi Arabia has probably gone to the greatest lengths to play down its aid to the U.S. war effort, even though the kingdom's support is considerable. About 4,000 U.S. troops are stationed at the Prince Sultan Air Base 60 miles southeast of Riyadh, staffing an operations center that is key to coordinating the air campaign in Iraq.

The kingdom has also shut down its civilian airport at Arar on the Saudi-Iraq border, ostensibly to prepare a place to keep incoming refugees. Diplomatic sources said the airport is also being used to house U.S. surveillance specialists, and probably search-and-rescue teams, who could move quickly into Iraq in the event of a downed American aircraft or other emergency.

Both sites have been carefully shielded from public view. Media visits to Prince Sultan Air Base were abruptly canceled. Likewise, Arar was closed to journalists last week, and thus far Saudi officials have not permitted media coverage of Iraqi refugees who are reportedly beginning to trickle into the kingdom from its long border with Iraq.

Publicly, Saudi Arabia has emphasized its continuing determination not to be used as the kind of platform it was during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. In an address to the nation, Crown Prince Abdullah, delivering a statement from King Fahd, reiterated the official position.

"The kingdom will under no circumstances take part in the war against Iraq, and its armed forces will not enter an inch of Iraqi territory," the king's statement said. "We have informed the United States of the clear Saudi position."

The address, however, ignored the issue of whether combat aircraft at Prince Sultan Air Base, until now used to patrol the "no-fly" zone in southern Iraq, would be allowed to launch raids from Saudi territory.

Despite such apparent inconsistencies, several factors have helped governments continue their charade.

One of them is Hussein's unpopularity. Although strong currents of anti-Americanism exist in these countries, many of their citizens have also come to view the Iraqi leader as a dangerous tyrant and an embarrassment.

"There's hardly an Arab who would dare to say this publicly, but a lot are saying privately, 'Let's get on with this war and get rid of Saddam Hussein,' " said Salameh Nematt, a Jordanian who is managing editor of the London-based Arabic daily, Al Hayat.

Although the strategy of denial appears to have prevented any immediate challenge to pro-U.S. governments in the region, some leaders worry about the longer-term implications. At a news conference this month, Qatari Foreign Minister Hamad Jassim expressed his concerns with unusual frankness:

"Some say we have no military bases, others say we don't have a single American soldier, and there are those who say I will never authorize activities" helping the American military.

"All these are word games," the minister said. "We are fooling our people, and it is because of that that we will have problems with them."

*

Marshall reported from Doha and Murphy from Riyadh. Times staff writers David Lamb in Cairo, Alissa J. Rubin in Amman, Jordan, and Jailan Zayan in Doha contributed to this report.

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