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Arab Partners Hold To Coalition Despite Attacks on Iraq

While many Arabs are sympathetic to Iraqi leader's plight, their governments refuse to be drawn into conflict on Saddam's side

THE Gulf conflict has confirmed and hardened the polarized positions of Iraq's neighbors and other major regional states, despite many ordinary Arabs and Muslims throughout the area sympathizing with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's defiance toward the United States and Israel. Those Arab players who had implicitly sided with Iraq before the war broke out - mainly Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) - have hitched their carts more clearly to Saddam's wagon as a result of the conflict. (Palestinians in the occupied territories, Page 4).

Observers say they face heavy political losses if Saddam goes down. But if he manages to survive, with hero status because of his confrontation with the US-led coalition, they could draw commensurate benefits.

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On the other side of the fence, Syria, whose commitment to the multinational forces was in doubt as war loomed, has made it clear that there is virtually nothing Saddam can do to make it jump ship. Even if Israel were to respond to Iraqi missile strikes, Syria would stand firm.

Another of Iraq's powerful neighbors, Iran, has similarly resisted Saddam's efforts to play the Islamic and anti-Israeli cards. Its declared intention to remain neutral in the conflict has also been hardened by the flames of war, despite mounting alarm at the scale and suspected intentions of the coalition onslaught.

Deep-rooted antipathy toward Israel and its sustaining American ally, and a surge in Islamic sentiment in recent years, leave few observers in doubt that the hearts of many ordinary Arabs and Muslims are stirred by Saddam's defiance, even if their heads tell them it is futile and doomed.

Such popular feeling may have played a role in persuading Jordan and the PLO to adopt their current courses, but they have had little effect so far in changing the politics of the situation.

``The Muslim street is with Saddam,'' said a well-placed Arab observer. ``But so far, that doesn't matter, it doesn't have an impact on governments. But if the war drags on, and Saddam is still standing, that could change.''

The PLO turned toward Saddam in a big way early last year, when it was clear that its dialogue with the US was getting nowhere. With their traditional Soviet backers collapsing, the Palestinians badly needed a champion, and felt they had nothing to lose. Saddam needed a cause, and adopted the banners of Palestine and Islam as his battle standards.

But the PLO stands to find its relations with pro-coalition Arab states severely damaged, whatever the outcome of war. It has become increasingly outspoken in its attacks on them.

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``How can those Arab countries, which sent forces to defend Saudi Arabia, saying they would not support any attack against Iraq, justify their position now that the American forces of aggression are setting about the wholesale destruction of Baghdad, the cradle of Arab civilization?'' the PLO demanded.

THE Jordanian leadership finds itself in a similar position of being largely in step with its people, but in trouble with regional and international powers because of its alignment with Baghdad.

The war has brought outspoken condemnation of the coalition attack on Iraq in both houses of Jordan's parliament. The Jordanian press has also opened fire on Syria for failing to quit the coalition after the Israeli factor had entered the scene.

But Syria's state-run press retorted that Amman had helped encourage Saddam to drag Iraq over the brink to disaster. Syria has scathingly denounced Saddam and rejected his efforts to broaden the conflict.

``Nobody can drag Syria by force into an imposed war ... as Saddam is trying to do with his theatrical missiles fired at Israel,'' the government daily Tishrin wrote Jan. 20.

``Not content with dragging Iraq into the furnace, its regime is trying to embroil the whole Arab world in a series of horrible, bloody crises,'' the official al-Thawra added.

Even more important from Baghdad's standpoint, the Iranian government has stuck to its declared policy of neutrality, despite Saddam's call to jihad (holy war) and his efforts to play on anti-Israeli sentiment.

Describing the conflict as ``a war between enemies of Islam,'' the hard-line Iranian daily Jumhouri Islami said: ``Even the missile attacks on Israel should not cloud our judgment of the true nature of the Iraqi regime. It is a propaganda stunt. Palestine will not be liberated by firing a few missiles at Israel.''

Some radical figures, notably the former Interior Minister Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, have backed the jihad call. But they have failed to win much support.

Tehran, however, is increasingly disturbed by the Western presence in the Gulf region and the scale of its onslaught on Iraq. Iranian leaders have accused the allies of overstepping the United Nations resolution and trying to destroy Iraq as a nation, possibly bringing about its fragmentation.

While calling for unconditional Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, they have condemned the coalition's ``harsh and savage'' bombing of Iraq, and reaffirmed Tehran's commitment to its neighbor's territorial integrity.

Fearing Turkey's involvement on the coalition side might signal designs on Iraq's oil-rich north, Iran despatched an envoy to Ankara Jan. 21 to stress its opposition to any geographical changes.

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