Europe, Arab leaders see war on Iraq as inevitable

Resigned to U.S. threat, governments are looking to protect own interests

July 31, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Whether they like it or not - and most don't - European and Arab-world governments have concluded that a U.S.-led war to topple Iraq's Saddam Hussein is probably inevitable and are looking for ways to limit the damage to their interests.

Repeated warnings from President Bush, speculation about Washington's military options and Iraq's continued defiance of the United Nations have convinced governments in both regions that there is little they can do to prevent a war, according to diplomats and commentators.

Instead, particularly in the Middle East, governments are thinking about how to influence the political buildup to a war, how it will be fought and what a post-Hussein Iraq would look like.

"There's a lot more understanding of the Iraq threat than you will hear in public," said a European diplomat at the United Nations. Another European diplomat said the only uncertainty was when the United States would act.

"Arab-world leaders know the [U.S.] administration is going" to war, an Arab diplomat said.

This growing expectation comes as Washington begins a formal debate on Iraq after months of news leaks and talk-show commentary. Today, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will open two days of hearings on Iraq policy, calling experts on the region, Hussein's regime and Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. No administration officials are expected to testify.

Until recently, European and Arab governments, in part to discourage action against Iraq, sought to convince the Bush administration that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the chief threat to stability in the Middle East and that solving it would remove an underlying cause of terrorism against the United States and the West.

But while Bush has stepped up U.S. mediation of that conflict, he and other officials have spoken out repeatedly of their determination to see a regime change in Iraq - keeping the issue before the American public and foreign governments - and warned of the dangers posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Bush's threats have gained credibility overseas with continuing reports of military plans and the start of a serious U.S. effort to work with an array of Iraqi opposition figures who had previously been shunned.

One development that could prevent military action - a resumption of U.N. weapons inspections - has become increasingly unlikely. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has held three unsuccessful high-level meetings with Iraqi officials in an effort to send weapons inspectors back into the country. After the latest meeting in Vienna last month, U.N. officials and diplomats expressed growing pessimism that Iraq would ever allow unfettered inspections for weapons of mass destruction.

Starting with a high-profile visit to the Middle East by Vice President Dick Cheney in the spring, U.S. officials have sought to convince regional leaders that Iraq has used the period since the inspectors were barred in 1998 to rebuild its stocks of chemical and biological weapons, renew its drive to acquire nuclear weapons and possibly expand the range of its missiles.

"There is a cumulative growth in the threat," said a European diplomat, indicating that U.S. efforts at persuasion are bearing fruit. With it has come a growing realization that the United States is not bluffing. After a recent visit by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz to Ankara, Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said that "the American administration is not hiding that it is determined on a military intervention against Iraq."

So far, this realization has not increased support for possible U.S. military action. In Europe, only British Prime Minister Tony Blair has publicly backed Bush's determination to topple Hussein, while stressing the president has not yet decided on military action. Others on the Continent still back the Clinton administration's policy of containing Hussein without going to war with him.

But to limit domestic opposition, European leaders will press Bush to seek "legitimacy" for military action through the U.N. Security Council, diplomats said, and urge the United States to spell out its plans for rebuilding Iraq.

Russia has made it known that it wants assurances that its lucrative oil-industry contracts with Iraq would be protected.

Turkey, which remains publicly opposed to military action, has won a pledge that the United States will not allow Iraq's Kurdish region to become independent. The Turks fear an independent Kurdish state could fuel a breakaway movement by Turkey's own Kurdish minority.

The United States' Arab allies, already facing intense anti-American sentiment at home because of U.S. support for Israel, fear a U.S.-led attack against Iraq would be widely seen as a new humiliation of the Arab world and lead to an "explosion in the area," said Mohammed Wahby, a Washington-based journalist and former Egyptian diplomat.

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