MOSCOW -- Mikhail S. Gorbachev may be on the allies' side in the war against Iraq. But most of the Soviet Union's estimated 70 million Muslims are lined up with Iraq.
"Yesterday, after prayers, an old man of about 80 came up to me and asked, 'Help me, I want to go and fight on the side of Saddam Hussein,' " Imam Ravel Gainudin, the senior cleric of Moscow's main mosque, said the other day.
"He said, 'I fought in the Great Fatherland War [World War II]. I know how to fight and I'm going.' There are lots of Muslims who feel that way. I say that with full responsibility."
Moscow already is attempting a delicate balancing act in the Persian Gulf war by giving political backing to its old adversary, the United States, against its old ally, Iraq.
But a further complication -- and one that worries some Soviet officials -- is the potential that an extended war could stir serious discontent in the Islamic republics of Transcaucasia and Central Asia.
"I'm seriously concerned about the religious factor in the Persian Gulf war," said Rizo-ali Odzhiev, a member of the Soviet parliament from Tadjikistan, in an interview with the Interfax news agency. "How Soviet Muslims will react to the course of the war and its results we don't yet know. Could it not become a new detonator of interethnic conflicts?"
Like many ordinary Arabs outside Iraq, many Soviet Muslims see Saddam Hussein as a bold leader, standing up to both Israel and the Western imperialists led by the United States, according to Soviet experts. Even those who condemn the Iraqi leader are reluctant to endorse the allied cause, because of deep distrust for American motives in the war.
Imam Gainudin, for instance, said he believed Mr. Hussein to be a "dictator who places his own ambitions before his people's interests." But the United States is worse, he said, because it started the war and because its troops amount to "hired killers" pursuing the region's oil wealth.
"The [U.S.] position was as follows: By dividing the Arab world, the Muslim world, to open for themselves a road for their commercial interests," he said. "But you can't solve your own economic problems that way."
Moscow's estimated 700,000 citizens of Islamic heritage are relatively secularized, living in a multinational, cosmopolitan capital. In the southern republics where the overwhelming majority of Soviet Muslims live, pro-Iraq feelings are still stronger, said Viktor A. Girshfeld, a Moscow activist and political scientist who specializes in interethnic relations.
Mr. Girshfeld, who regularly organizes seminars involving representatives of different nationalities, said 12 acquaintances from various predominantly Muslim republics called him in the first two days since the war began. Some expressed their own feelings, and all described the initial reaction in their communities.
"Ninety percent of Soviet Muslims are anti-American in this war," he said. "The educated people are also anti-Saddam, but not so strongly. One man said: 'It's a white goat [President Bush] vs. a black goat [Saddam Hussein]. Both goats stink, but the white one is more powerful, so he's the one we should criticize.' "
He said contacts in Dushanbe, the capital of Tadjikistan, reported that various leaflets have appeared in response to the beginning of the fighting.
All support Mr. Hussein, and those printed by Islamic fundamentalists call for a jihad, or holy war, against the United States.
His contacts in the republic of Turkmenistan, Mr. Girshfeld said, are getting reports on the war from television in neighboring Iran. He said that among other things, the Turkmeni allegedly heard from Iranian broadcasts that the death toll among Iraqi civilians is more than 12,000, contrary to reports from allied sources emphasizing minimal civilian casualties.
"They criticize Soviet television for only broadcasting the U.S. version," he said.
"In principle, this is very dangerous for the Soviet Union," Mr. Girshfeld said of the opinions forming among Soviet Muslims. "We have a huge number of Muslims, and if they conclude that Bush and Gorbachev are one and the same thing, then the jihad is against Gorbachev, too."
Mr. Girshfeld said one of his contacts spoke heatedly of "cutting the throats of the Americans in Moscow" in revenge for the gulf war. He said he took that to be angry rhetoric rather than a concrete threat.
Because of the large number of Iraqi citizens and other Arabs in Moscow, the U.S. Embassy and several other Western embassies have taken precautions against possible terrorist attacks and have asked the KGB to be on guard against terrorism. The Anglo-American School, the largest school for foreigners in the city, has closed for several days as a safeguard against possible attacks. In both Leningrad and Moscow last week, there were relatively small demonstrations against the war, mostly involving Arab students.