WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State James A. Baker III said yesterday that he didn't think Arab states now arrayed against Iraq would turn on Israel if Iraq embroiled the Jewish state in the Persian Gulf conflict.
He appeared to caution, however, that the Arab countries' response would depend on whether Israel intervened in response to Iraqi aggression or entered the crisis on its own.
Iraq threatened yesterday to move against Israel, in addition to destroying all Middle East oil fields, if its people were "strangled" by international trade sanctions. Israel promptly said it would be able to defend itself.
Mr. Baker, asked about the possibility that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein could unite Arab states in a battle against Israel, replied: "One more case of unprovoked aggression I don't think is going to lead to uniting the Arab countries, the majority of which are strongly united in support of the United Nations and the world community.
"I think it might depend entirely on the way in which that involvement took place," he said, suggesting that the Arab states would avoid reacting "if [Israeli involvement] takes place as a consequence of further unprovoked aggression by Saddam Hussein."
Mr. Baker's comments were significant in light of his extensive consultations with Arab leaders from Persian Gulf states and Syria recently to enlist a stronger financial and military commitment against Iraq.
Israel's supporters in Congress have become increasingly worried that strategic cooperation between the United States and Arab nations ultimately could jeopardize Israel's security. Only Egypt has made peace with Israel.
Those concerns have been heightened by administration plans -- since scaled back -- for a $21 billion sale of advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia.
U.S. officials have pledged that Israel will retain its qualitative military edge over Arab states.
Interviewed on NBC's "Meet the Press," Mr. Baker said that the United States might take unilateral military action against Iraq -- instead of seeking U.N. action -- if Americans were attacked by terrorists.
He held out the prospect, however, of seeking U.N.-sponsored military action at some point to ensure "full implementation of all of the U.N. Security Council resolutions."
Mr. Baker said the United States "would not have much latitude" in responding to a terrorist attack and "certainly" might use military force.
His comments came two days after President Bush, expressing concern about treatment of Americans and about terrorism, refused to rule out a first strike by the United States.
Mr. Baker made a distinction between a U.S. response to a specific "provocation" by Iraq and further action aimed at forcing Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait.
"This question . . . is affected by whether or not there is provocation . . . or whether or not it is a move that is made in order to implement U.N. resolutions in the absence of some specific act of provocation," he said.
The United Nations has been used to an unprecedented degree in building pressure against Iraq. This week, Mr. Baker and other foreign ministers, meeting in New York, are expected to approve an air embargo.
The U.N. Charter allows the Security Council to go further, to "take such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to . . . restore international peace and security."
But Mr. Baker said yesterday, "I don't think we're running out of non-military-type sanctions. I think there are a whole host of other things that might be considered."
The Washington Post reported yesterday that Army and Marine Corps officers have crafted contingency plans -- for use if sanctions fail -- that call for assaults against Iraq from as many as four directions, including through the Jordanian desert and the Turkish mountains.
In a related development yesterday, U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar said he would be meeting again soon with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz "to obtain from him some clarifications about the very tough position of his country."