WASHINGTON -- The United States has secured an agreement from its Arab allies not to desert the coalition if Israel retaliates against an Iraqi attack, and Israel has agreed it would not strike first, a congressional leader on defense matters said yesterday.
Representative Les Aspin, D-Wis., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said at a breakfast gathering of reporters that the Bush administration won the assurances to offset Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's attempts to crack the coalition arrayed against him by playing on anti-Israeli sentiment in the Arab world.
Mr. Aspin also reported that it was the "fragility" of that coalition that had prompted administration officials to begin seeking a quick resolution to the crisis.
His assertions have been reflected in public statements by both President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and confirmed in part by administration officials.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz said Wednesday in Geneva that if Iraq was attacked by the coalition, it "absolutely" would attack Israel, even though Israel was not part of the coalition.
Israel made clear again yesterday that it would "react forcefully" to such an attack.
Despite the longtime enmities in the region, Mr. Aspin said, officials from Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have assured the United States that they would not leave the battle against Iraq as long as the Israeli role was limited to brief retaliation and they did not find themselves fighting side by side.
No limits have been put on the extent of the Israeli retaliation, though, which Mr. Aspin said would probably be an "eye for an eye, maybe two eyes for an eye."
Administration officials confirmed that the United States had reached such understandings with its Arab partners, and President Bush strongly hinted at such agreements at a news conference Dec. 18.
"I'm convinced the coalition would not fall apart," he said, when asked what commitments he had received from U.S. allies in the event of an attack on Israel. "I can't tell you the specifics on it, but I'm absolutely convinced of it. And you can assume the way I've answered the question that we've inquired about that."
Mr. Aspin said that the administration had also won a commitment from Israel not to launch a pre-emptive strike.
Ruth Yaron, a spokeswoman for the Israeli Embassy, noted that various officials, including Prime Minister Shamir, have promised that there would be no first strike against Iraq.
"Israel will not initiate military operations against Iraq," Mr. Shamir declared before a gathering of journalists in New York last month that was reported on by the Baltimore Jewish Times.
Even with these assurances, however, the Bush administration is keenly aware of the "fragility" of the unlikely partnership it has lined up, Mr. Aspin said.
Shortly after the Temple Mount incident -- in which Israeli police killed some 19 Palestinian protesters -- Mr. Aspin said, the administration recalculated its strategy of waiting on economic sanctions against Iraq and decided to push for a resolution of the crisis -- one way or the other -- by midwinter.