DOHA, Qatar -- A few weeks ago, the secretary general of the 22-member Arab League, Amr Moussa, declared that war with Iraq "will open the gates of Hell in the Middle East." But the reality is that some Arab nations are cooperating with preparations for a U.S. military campaign, while others remain on the sidelines.
Interviews with officials and observers from Qatar, Jordan and Saudi Arabia reveal a common basis for Arab calculations. It boils down to a wish to maintain good relations with Washington, even at the expense of criticism and possible unrest within their borders.
President Bush's address to the United Nations this month, seeking support from the Security Council for any action against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, drew support from some Arab leaders who said they could not support a unilateral U.S. strike.
Bush will not be able to recruit Arab states into a coalition against Hussein as his father did in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when Arab leaders supplied the alliance with soldiers, bases and cash. But this time, the Arabs are bending to the will of U.S. superpower dominance.
Jordan's foreign minister, Marwan Muasher, said in an interview in Washington that despite strong misgivings about war, "Jordan has a strategic, political and economic relationship with the United States, and certainly, Jordan will not jeopardize this relationship." That is a contrast from a decade ago, when King Hussein came out against international intervention after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
In Qatar, a wealthy sheikdom in the Persian Gulf, the foreign minister, Hamad Bin Jasim al-Thani, recently signaled his country's priorities: "We always consider requests from our friends. We consider the United States our ally."
A wild card for all the Arab states is what Israel would do in the event of war. In 1991, the Israelis refrained from retaliating when Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel. But this time, Israeli military and political leaders say they will not be restrained if attacked. If Israel joined the United States in a U.S. miliary campaign against Iraq, it could provoke a harsh reaction in the Arab world.
For now, the evidence of key Arab states' support for the United States is not found so much in public statements as in events on the ground. Arms and equipment are pouring into Kuwait, where the United States maintains an Army headquarters post -- a forward base to supply three battalions with tanks, armored vehicles, assault helicopters and other equipment.
Troops from Britain, the Bush administration's prime partner in the campaign to oust Hussein, are holding maneuvers in Oman, where the United States is building a new airfield. Bahrain hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet and its two carrier-led battle groups, and has beefed up security at the base for fear of a backlash against a U.S. assault on Iraq.
Ten days ago, Saudi Arabia reversed itself and said it would permit military installations there to be used in a war endorsed by the United Nations. Jordan has taken no such public stand, but Western diplomats in Amman, the capital, say there is an "understanding" that Jordan will permit the Americans to use its territory for "search and rescue missions" to support U.S. troops inside Iraq.
Influential Egypt and Syria have chosen evasion as the best course, speaking only of their desire for U.N. decision-making. Cairo and Damascus have steered the debate away from the question of U.S. plans to overthrow Hussein to the issue of getting arms inspectors into Iraq.
A Launching Pad
Qatar has established a no-holds-barred alliance with the United States, which maintains the large Al Udeid Air Base in the south of the country. Transport planes, usually escorted by fighter jets, land at the base almost daily. The United States began using the base in the late 1990s, and it has undergone substantial enlargement. A hangar can house 40 planes, and bunkered shelters for jets line its 15,000-foot runway, the longest in the Persian Gulf.
Although Qatari officials say they have received no request for use of the base against Iraq, the U.S. Central Command will move command and control facilities from Florida to Qatar in November. The move is officially billed as a biennial exercise, but equipment and personnel will remain afterward, according to a U.S. official. There appears to be no doubt here that Qatar will be used as a launching pad if the United States attacks Iraq.
Qatar, a wealthy oil and natural gas emirate jutting from the Arabian Peninsula into the Gulf, would seem an unlikely U.S. ally in at least one way. Qataris belong to the Wahhabi sect of Islam, the same as Osama bin Laden and many Saudis. Yet, Wahhabism here is a relaxed variety. Women can work and drive, alcohol is served in hotels, and foreigners seem genuinely welcome.
Qataris, even those who oppose the U.S. plans for Iraq, value the U.S. security umbrella. Qatar's gas fields in the Gulf nudge up against Iran's. And Qatar shares with other small Gulf states a fear of Saudi domination. The Al Udeid base is an insurance policy.
"We are a small country," said Abdul Hamid Ansari, head of the Islamic law department at Qatar University. "Hardly anyone questions the benefit of having an American protector."
Yet it is hard to find anyone who regards Iraq as a threat to the Arab world, even though Qatar was hit by a Scud missile during the 1991 war. "Iraq is weaker than it was 10 years ago," said Muhammad Musfir, a political scientist and critic of Washington's campaign against Hussein. "Still, I think demonstrations here will be small."
Ansari said the unresolved conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is a source of hostility toward the United States, which has backed Israel. "It is an antagonism that will simmer," he said, citing worry that passions will boil over if a war is not short. "I am against it all because there will be innocent victims," he added. "The longer it goes on, the more possibility for problems here."
Costs of War
In contrast to the wealthy Gulf emirates, Jordan is vulnerable economically in the event of war. The country depends on Iraq for trade amounting to $300 million annually and receives a $50 million monthly discount for oil purchases from Iraq. As part of the deal to allow search and rescue operations, Jordan expects the United States to cover the added cost of fuel during any conflict, Western diplomats said.
Jordan's King Abdullah has yet to appeal directly to Jordanians and ask their forbearance in the event of a U.S. attack, much less sound them out about military use of Jordanian territory. "The king is firmly in the saddle, yet it is hard for him to even say Jordan is too weak to do anything," said Labib Kamhawi, a political analyst. "Avoidance of reality is the option for now."
As in Qatar, Jordanians fear a prolonged war as well as an influx of refugees from across the Iraqi border. Jordan is already home to tens of thousands of Iraqis. "The fear is that there could be terrorist acts, soon or in the medium term," Kamhawi said.
Jordanians also worry about unrest among Palestinians, who make up the majority of Jordan's 5 million inhabitants and are embittered by the hundreds of deaths in the West Bank and Gaza Strip during the two-year Palestinian uprising.