Haytham Mouzahem my article in a--mustaqbal re Iraq's invasion

Lebanonwire, September 13, 2002
The Daily Star



Arab Press Review
PA leader’s comeuppance and Arab doublespeak
The row between Palestinian legislators and President Yasser Arafat that led to the resignation of his Cabinet competes for front-page space in the Arab press with reports of America’s commemorations of the Sept. 11 anniversary and its ongoing diplomatic and military preparations for a blitz on Iraq.
The pan-Arab daily Al-Quds al-Arabi sees the refusal by the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) to endorse Arafat’s ministerial lineup as both its “first real revolt” against him, and a “clear message” to the Americans that it wants the Palestinian Authority (PA) reformed to suit Palestinian, rather than Israeli, interests.
Arafat’s eagerness to convene the PLC despite Israel’s attempts to prevent it from meeting shows that he was confident the legislature would do his bidding, i.e. give a vote of confidence to his reshuffled team of ministers. But he was trumped by members of his own Fatah Movement, who made clear to him that they would not approve his Cabinet, and that they want a government that serves Palestinian rather than Israeli and American needs, Al-Quds al-Arabi writes.
“It was obvious from the deliberations and contacts, both in the legislative chamber and the corridors, that there is discontent at the government’s performance and the Palestinian leader’s submission to American dictates, which was expressed in the rejection of all President Arafat’s pleas to vote confidence in his cabinet and take account of his current circumstances,” the paper says.
It’s clear that legislators were angered by Interior Minister Abdel-Razzak al-Yahia’s statements condemning any kind of resistance to Israeli occupation ­ “even stone-throwing” ­ and by the formation of the new Higher Investment Committee, which effectively evaded the need to reform the PA’s finances, it reports.
What is not clear is whether Arafat has taken on board “that his old style of managing PA affairs is no longer adequate, particularly in these trying times, and that his policy of gaining time and avoiding important decision is no longer helpful, or even practicable.
“For the current crisis is not a fleeting one that will blow over like previous ones did, and deferring decisions will only cause the Palestinian people more suffering and losses.”
It would be unwise for Arafat to continue sitting on the fence, trying to offset Israeli and American pressure against pressure from the Palestinian public. His only way out lies in the formation of a national unity government, thereby foiling “American and Israeli attempts to erase him, salvaging his patriotic record, and turning back to the people ­ the only true power base and source of support,” the paper says.
London-based pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat says that although Arafat tried to appease the PLC by setting a date for presidential and legislative elections for Jan. 20, 2003, the US has indicated that it will seek their “postponement.” One possible implication is that it doesn’t want Palestinians voting at a time when a military offensive on Iraq may be under way.
The transfer of hundreds of US Central Command personnel to the Al-Udaid Air Base in Qatar is meanwhile seen by Arab papers as the latest sign of looming war, despite the official American explanation that they will only be staging a brief exercise.
In the Beirut daily An-Nahar, Sarkis Naoum identifies Qatar as one of a number of Arab states likely to support an American war on Iraq despite their declared opposition to one, the others being Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman.
He writes that the Bush administration is also confident Turkey will back a US invasion, especially if it gets substantial financial aid in return.
According to Naoum’s sources, the Americans expect Jordan to provide them with support as well, but only to “show” it once an attack has started and the Americans have demonstrated that they will not back off until they have toppled President Saddam Hussein.
Amman’s stance reflects both its fear of a domestic backlash if the US operation fails to unseat Saddam, and its inability to prevent the Americans from going to war if they make a “final” decision to do so, Naoum writes.
Amman’s stance may also have to do with the desire of the Hashemite dynasty to regain a role in Iraq, where the restoration of the Hashemite monarchy deposed in 1958 is seen as a possible option if rival Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish groups fail to agree on power-sharing in post-Saddam Iraq.
The Americans think Iraqi Shiites in particular might “welcome, or rather not object to” Hashemite rule to offset the influence of non-Arab Iran, especially in light of Tehran’s long-standing quest to assert its religious authority over the traditional centers of Shiite theology in Iraq.
As for Saudi Arabia, Naoum’s sources say it has “agreed to differ” with America over Iraq, while promising to keep its oil flowing “at current prices” after an attack begins.
Asharq al-Awsat reports that Saudi Arabia is to reiterate its opposition to a US attack on Iraq in talks this week between Saudi leaders and Iran’s visiting President Mohammad Khatami. The paper quotes Iranian sources as saying the two sides fear an American war on Iraq will cause “anarchy and turmoil” in the region.
In its main editorial, Asharq al-Awsat hints at some Saudi displeasure with Iran, urging Tehran do more to advance the two countries common quest to safeguard the Middle East from the “dangers” facing the region as a consequence of America’s “war on terror” and its designs on Iraq.
The Saudi paper reports that both sides have made some positive moves in that direction, “especially in terms of extraditing persons wanted on charges of involvement in terrorist activities or membership of suspect organizations.”
“But while Saudi Arabia, out of good intentions and fully convinced of the need to draw closer, has taken a number of steps in Iran’s direction ­ despite the reservations of the kingdom’s Western friends about any such rapprochement ­ Tehran has held back from undertaking a parallel qualitative shift,” Asharq al-Awsat complains.
“Therefore, other steps are urgently needed to block the road to the plans that some people with sinister motives in certain world decision-making capitals” have been hatching.
It is hoped that such steps will be agreed during Khatami’s visit, Asharq al-Awsat writes, thus enabling Tehran and Riyadh to reach understandings over a range of regional issues “before others impose their own skewed and biased ideas about regional security.”
Turning to recent signs of tension between Iran and Iraq, Haytham Muzahim suggests in the Beirut daily Al-Mustaqbal that a combination of factors prompted Iraqi Vice-President Taha Yassin Ramadan’s outburst accusing the Iranians of secretly conniving with the US against his country.
He writes that Ramadan’s diatribe was unexpected, given Tehran’s avowed opposition to any American attack despite its mistrust of the regime, and Baghdad’s need to win as many friends as it can at this juncture, or at least avoid making enemies.
Quoting Iraqi opposition sources, Muzahim says the direct cause of Baghdad’s ire was that Tehran turned down a request to sell Baghdad Shahab-3 missiles and to return warplanes that were flown to Iran for safe parking on the eve of the 1991 Gulf War.
But Baghdad is also worried that Tehran may decide to contribute to the US military campaign by backing anti-regime rebels, just as it assisted the war in Afghanistan by aiding the Northern Alliance. The Iraqis were particularly alarmed when the Iranian-sponsored Supreme Assembly for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SAIRI) got the nod from Tehran to send envoys to Washington for talks on post-Saddam Iraq.
According to Muzahim, the SAIRI delegates raised the possibility of starting an uprising in southern Iraq and then seeking US intervention under the guise of “requesting international protection for the Iraqi people,” and their ideas were well received by their American interlocutors.
Turning to broader US strategy in the Middle East, Lebanese commentator Saad Mehio writes that while Washington’s campaign against Al-Qaeda and its planned war on Iraq are being presented as part of a radical new approach to the region driven by the Sept. 11 attacks, both are in fact hangovers from the Cold War.
He writes in the UAE daily Al-Khaleej that the perpetrators of the attacks were an anti-Soviet “invention,” and by going to war against them America was “belatedly paying a Cold War bill” incurred by turning its back on Afghanistan after the Soviets left.
Similarly, the coming war against Iraq is not a product of new post-Sept. 11 considerations but a “leftover from the old world order.” It is about completing the “unfinished business” of the 1991 Gulf War, which was in turn an “extension” of the 1980-88 Iran-Iran War, in which the Americans provided massive support to Saddam, so much so that he thought they wouldn’t mind him helping himself to Kuwait afterwards as a “consolation prize.”
The worldwide spate of “democratic revolutions” that followed the Cold War, he writes, would have extended to the Middle East had the US not prevented it. Washington saw no need for democracy in the Arab world so long as the oil was flowing.
But Sept. 11 changed all that “when the Middle East blew up in the face (literally) of the US, and the Cold War exacted revenge against the victors,” Mehio remarks.
Suddenly, everything in the Middle East ­ “from the education curricula in Saudi Arabia to the political regimes in Palestine, Iraq and the other Arab states ­ became a domestic American affair. And suddenly too, America discovered that it still has to dismantle the Cold War order and its ideological structures and political institutions, before it can proceed to build its new world order.”

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