Arabs lukewarm about move to place sanctions on Libya Issues involving bomb suspects are complex.

March 30, 1992|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

BURBANK, CALIF. — CAIRO, Egypt -- Western diplomats are advocating United Nations sanctions and hinting that force is an option. Arab League officials are trying to defuse the crisis. Washington is telling U.S. citizens to evacuate an enemy pariah nation.

There is defiant rhetoric about Arab unity. Bitter bombast about Western imperialism. Talk that a military action could fuel Muslim fundamentalism.

It sounds like an eerie rerun of the slow slide to last year's war against Iraq.

Yet this time the enemy is not Saddam Hussein's Iraq -- but Libya, led by Washington's longtime nemesis, Col. Moammar Gadhafi. Like Mr. Saddam, he has ruled his oil-rich country with a cult of strong personality and an even stronger security apparatus.

The issues are not as simple as Iraq's illegal occupation of a sovereign nation. Instead, the United States and Britain are demanding that Mr. Gadhafi turn over two of his citizens indicted in the West for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 people, 188 of them Americans.

This time, Egypt and other Arab nations that backed the United States and Britain in their bid to oust Iraq from Kuwait are less enthusiastic about this mission -- trying to pry two accused terrorists out of Libya.

Partly because of the lessons of the Persian Gulf War, diplomats and officials say, the Arab world is not about to line up quite so decisively behind President Bush.

"Of course Egypt will abide by the sanctions," a senior Egyptian official close to the crisis said mournfully last week as the United States, France and Britain prepared the draft U.N. sanctions resolution.

The resolution, expected to be presented to the U.N. Security Council today, would slap arms and air embargoes on Libya. A draft indicates that it also will ask nations that have Libyan diplomatic representation to send some envoys home.

But, for Egypt, which has been steadily improving ties with Libya over the past two years, "it will be different than the sanctions against Iraq because we are not really convinced and behind these sanctions," the Egyptian official said. "We are really in a difficult position."

Arab officials and diplomats say there was widespread support for Libya's demand to have the jurisdiction question heard by the World Court, a move Washington rejected as a delaying tactic.

At the center of the issue are two Libyan men -- Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah -- who were indicted by both Britain and the United States in November as the bag men in the bombing. Both are accused of being agents in Gadhafi's security forces.

Egyptian and other Arab officials also question the legality of the U.S.-British demand to turn over the two men.

The officials and diplomats cite several reasons for Arab nations' lack of enthusiasm for the West's campaign against Libya.

They include the widespread perception that Washington is emerging as a New World Order bully, employing the threat of a military strike because the Soviet Union no longer provides a counterbalance.

Egypt, Syria and other gulf war allies may be adjusting their foreign policy to accommodate the United States as the lone superpower in the region. But in the streets, one Western diplomat said, a strike on Libya would win sympathy for Mr. Gadhafi and support the argument "that the evil Americans are out to get the God-fearing Muslims."

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