Arab allies split on consequences of Israeli action

January 14, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Sun Staff Correspondent

DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- Whatever actions Iraq takes before the deadline for its withdrawal from Kuwait, the Arab world has given the United States another indirect warning that the anti-Iraq coalition will be difficult to maintain in either peace or war.

Remarks during the weekend by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Farouq el Sharaa, Syria's foreign minister, highlighted differing viewpoints of Washington's Arab allies, especially over how they might react if Israel became involved.

Mr. al Sharaa insisted that Israel must remain aloof from the conflict even if attacked by Iraq. He thereby reminded Secretary of State James A. Baker III that the U.S.-led coalition could be split by events beyond the control of any single member and that Arab attention could turn away from Iraq's occupation of Kuwait.

In Cairo, Mr. Mubarak said that Israel had the right to defend itself. But diplomats say it would be almost inconceivable for any other Arab leader to agree publicly with Mr. Mubarak's statement. Except for Egypt, which agreed to a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, other Arab states and Israel remain technically at war.

On the other hand, Arab leaders have offered Iraqi President Saddam Hussein no concessions. King Fahd of Saudi Arabia said Iraq's demands for border changes and claims to Kuwaiti oil fields could be discussed by an Arab forum but only after a complete Iraqi withdrawal.

"We don't want to see Iraq and its people destroyed, but if President Saddam continues his adamant stand, he will be responsible for the consequences," the king told a group of Islamic religious judges. If Mr. Hussein does not withdraw, war "will be lawful."

President Hafez el Assad of Syria, Mr. Hussein's rival, issued his own call for an Iraqi withdrawal and coupled it with a pledge to fight alongside Iraq if, after giving up Kuwait, it was attacked by the United States.

If war over Kuwait is averted, Syria and other Arab states appear certain to refocus their attention that much sooner on the Arab-Israeli conflict and to make it difficult if not impossible for the United States to meet the expectations of both Israel and the Arabs.

"If blood is spilled, there's going to be a fairly rigorous anti-Western reaction," a diplomat said. "If there's no war, there will be the same problem, because anti-Western feeling over Palestine pre-dates the Kuwait problem."

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