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With God on our side.

"ANOTHER BATTLE has started, another holy war ordained by God," trumpeted Saddam Hussein after the American air strike on 13 January. Just as he did after his forces were humiliatingly ejected from Kuwait two years ago, he sought to portray the debacle as a defeat for the West. Though his own survival is as much at risk as ever, he could be right. Introducing God into the conflict was more than a mere rhetorical flourish.

Saddam Hussein is regarded as a troublesome menace as much by his brother Arab leaders as by governments throughout the rest of the world. But bringing the weight of American and Allied airpower to bear upon him as a means of enforcing UN Security Council resolutions arouses serious misgivings in much of the Middle East. That includes Iran which has as much reason to seek revenge as Kuwait. The United Nations, and the United States in particular, are widely perceived as practising double standards.

Shortly before the latest Iraqi crisis, Israel expelled more than 400 Palestinian supporters of the Islamic fundamentalist movement Hamas to spend the winter on bare hillsides in southern Lebanon. The UN Security Council duly passed Resolution 799 condemning the action and demanding the immediate and safe return of all the deportees. The United Nations despatched two successive envoys to Israel. Yitzhak Rabin sent them packing. Boutros Boutros Ghali, the UN secretary-general, told the Security Council he would recommend further action. As The Middle East went to press, that was just about that.

At the same time, a team of mediators led by Lord Owen, a former British foreign secretary, and Cyrus Vance, a former US secretary of state, appeared close to brokering a deal which might bring some sort of peace to Bosnia-Hercegovina. It involved breaking up the Bosnian republic, a recognised member of the United Nations, into a patchwork of separate cantons for the country's Muslims, Croats and Serbs.

Perhaps this is the only feasible solution. But it rewards Belgrade with large areas of territory seized by force and will leave the Bosnian Serbs unpunished for committing well-documented atrocities on a huge scale. Yet it is precisely on the grounds of seeking to extend his borders and brutally suppressing Iraq's Shias and Kurds that Saddam Hussein has been subjected to retribution with the blessing of the United Nations. As if to underline the irony, the United States and its allies have balked at enforcing the no-fly zone over Bosnia, even though this has the approval of the UN, while attacking Iraq for infringing the exclusion zone in southern Iraq which has no UN backing.

The justification for last month's air strikes against Iraq is a matter of intricate and rather tedious controversy. The air exclusion zone south of the 32nd parallel was unilaterally imposed by the United States, Britain and France under the guise of conforming to UN Security Council Resolution 688 which condemns the Iraqi regime's repression of its own people. The resolution, however, makes no provision for enforcement. There are provisions for enforcement of Resolution 687, but this relates only to the ceasefire terms imposed after the Kuwait war. Allied officials have responded that they nonetheless had every right under international law to defend their surveillance aircraft flying over southern Iraq from the threat of surface-to-air missile attack.

Legalistic hair-splitting, say the Americans. Perhaps. But ignoring the fine print of UN resolutions brings up the question of exactly who is calling the shots and why. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the American air strike against Iraq was undertaken simply because it was practical and affordable, while similar punitive measures have been avoided in Bosnia because they would have involved a far greater commitment of force and risk of casualties.

In the case of Resolution 799, Israel is not admittedly subject to sanctions like Iraq and Serbia. But there seems little eagerness to oblige Israel to abide by the resolution, simply because the political will to do so is lacking.

Arab governments are caught in a dilemma. Egypt and Syria regretted the attack on Saddam Hussein but signally failed to condemn it. Apart from Kuwait, the Gulf regimes maintained an eloquent silence about support for American actions. There is a particular bitterness against Saddam, voiced for example by the official Syrian daily Al Thawra which condemned Iraq's provocations "as inimical to the plight of the Palestinian deportees" and accused the Iraqi leader of trying "in a clownish way" to divert world attention away from the more important issue of Palestine.

Popular sentiment was best summed up by an editorial in the Jordan Times which asked: "Why does the United States ... lead such a determined effort for compliance with UN resolutions in Iraq, but not in other parts of the Middle East? By what standards does the suffering of innocent civilians in Iraq elicit international protection but the wholesale savagery against the people of Bosnia does not?"

It is at the popular level that the West has most to lose by what is perceived as the application of double standards and discrimination against Muslim interests. Saddam Hussein is widely seen as the one Arab leader courageous enough to stand up to the United States. By contrast, the rest are intent upon ingratiating themselves with Washington in a futile attempt to secure the rights of Palestinians and Bosnian Muslims.

The lack of any meaningful progress in the Arab-Israeli talks has already led to an immeasurable strengthening of the fundamentalist Hamas, which rejects the whole concept of negotiations. Meanwhile, Lebanese Hizbollah, Algerian, Kuwaiti and Saudi freelance fighters, many of them veterans of the Afghan civil war, have turned up in Bosnia to help train Muslim militias. The plight of the Bosnians is a constant refrain of sermons in mosques throughout the Middle East and is followed with assiduous interest.

The greatest threat to Western interests in the Middle East is the seemingly inexorable proliferation of antipathetic Islamic fundamentalist feeling throughout the region. So long as the United States is seen to be acting in ways inimical to Muslim interests, it will only encourage the growth of Islamic hostility. God may not be on Saddam's side, as he likes to think. But more and more he is being called upon to defend the Islamic world against the depradations of the West.
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Title Annotation:US air strikes against Iraq
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Feb 1, 1993
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