Arabs to Cheney: 'Curb Sharon Before Saddam'

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Cheney walks with Israeli Foreign Ministry Representative Uri Halfon

Vice President Cheney's Middle East tour has highlighted the difficulties faced by the Bush administration in making Iraq the focus of Phase 2 of its war on terrorism. The message the Vice President heard repeatedly on his rounds of Arab capitals over the past week is that Washington's Arab allies see Ariel Sharon as a bigger threat to regional security than Saddam Hussein, and they want the U.S. to prioritize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rather than a new campaign against Iraq.

Cheney will have learned that even those Arab regimes most closely allied with Washington are sharply at odds with the U.S. agenda for the region, and cannot be counted on to go along with it. It is no overstatement to say that Arab leaders have been aghast over the Bush talking about toppling Saddam at the same time as appearing to give support to Sharon — a posture that U.S.-aligned Arab states fear will set their own streets ablaze.

And it's that concern over their own stability that has Arab governments opposing action against Iraq, even though most of them would like to see Saddam Hussein dead. Arab officials complain that the U.S. lacks a viable plan for unseating Saddam. Six months into the Afghan campaign, Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar are still on the loose, and that inspires little confidence in U.S. promises that a war against Saddam's considerably more powerful regime would be over in a heartbeat. Arab officials fear that a protracted military campaign would spark dangerous street unrest in their own streets. They also fear that the collapse of Saddam's regime could presage the breakup of Iraq, setting the stage for a new round of regional conflicts.

Cheney's effort was undermined from the outset by Washington's low credibility in the Arab world. One senior Arab diplomat called Washington's policy toward the Palestinians "confused," and dismissed the idea of attacking Iraq as "ridiculous" and "disastrous." Although Arab officials welcomed Zinni's mission as a first step, the reaction to Cheney's tour ranged from puzzlement to scorn. And there is considerable anger that the administration allowed the bloodshed between Israelis and Palestinians to reach unprecedented levels before intervening, despite many months of Arab allies pleading with Washington to do something.

Although Cheney had hoped to push the Iraq issue, his visit allowed Arab leaders an opportunity to vent their frustrations over U.S. support for Israel. And the Vice President was not helped by fact that his trip coincided with the heaviest Israeli military operations into the West Bank and Gaza since the 1967 war.

The Vice President got an earful from Jordan's King Abdullah II, who berated the U.S. over the Palestinian issue and pointedly rejected U.S. proposals for attacking Iraq. A statement issued by the Royal Hashemite Court immediately afterwards called for disputes with Iraq to be settled "through dialogue and peaceful means" and revealed that Abdullah had expressed his concerns about "the repercussions of any possible strike on Iraq and the danger of that on the stability and security of the region."

Cheney got no further with President Hosni Mubarak, another traditional U.S. ally. The Egyptian leader also hammered on the Palestinian issue. "This is topping our agenda because it is the core of all the turmoil," explains an Egyptian official. "We have a crisis on our hands and it is a crisis that is drifting into the worst crisis the area has ever witnessed. Frustration will lead to more violence, and create a new generation of terrorists. No one will escape the consequences."

The Egyptians believe it was folly for Cheney to initiate discussion about Iraq at a moment when all Arab leaders are totally consumed with Israel and the Palestinians. "If you want support for a plan, pay attention to what public opinion in the area is asking for," huffs an Egyptian official. "What is the relationship between the Taliban and Iraq? If the issue is weapons of mass destruction, then everybody is aware that Iraq's capacity has been demolished while others in the area (i.e. Israel) have a capacity that nobody is talking about. If you are an Arab, the question is, Why Iraq and not Israel? Why open files selectively? We warn, you can't ignore public opinion in Egypt."

Mubarak also stressed that he believed Iraq would defuse the crisis by readmitting U.N. weapons inspectors, and pressed the point in a meeting with Iraqi Vice President Izzat Ibrahim al Douri the day after seeing Cheney.

Saudi officials in Riyadh have also urged more U.S. involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian situation, and they oppose a new war in Iraq. Friction has been mounting between the two governments over Saudi restrictions on U.S. pilots flying Iraq missions from Prince Sultan Airforce Base. There has also been disagreement over the use of the Combined Air Operations Center, or CAOC, a new U.S.-built underground facility equipped with satellite receivers, computers and secret communications that enable commanders to direct a major war with real-time battlefield feedback. The Saudis allowed CAOC's use during the Afghan war, but have, so far, refused to give a green light for its use in an invasion of Iraq.

Last week's efforts by the Bush administration to press for an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire were welcomed as a first step, but Arab officials are leery of any quid-pro-quo in which the U.S. solves the Palestinian problem to Arab satisfaction, and Arab governments support an attack on Iraq. Such a deal may be possible at some time down the road, according to Arab diplomats, but not before the Israeli-Palestinian situation has changed dramatically. Indeed, just as many Israeli officials had expressed doubt over the prospects for negotiating with Arafat, so Arab officials have warned that they see little hope of progress while Sharon remains at the helm in Israel. All of which suggests Gulf War II may not be a done deal for some time yet.