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The 'Arab Street' counts

While operation Desert Fox was staged with unprecedented intensity, an equally intense popular response occurred throughout the Arab world.

This should not be mistaken, as it often is, for support for Saddam Hussein's regime or its practices. In this respect, US policy is flawed, for it treats any opposition to the punishing acts against Iraq as sympathy for the Iraqi regime.

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With his propensity for dangerous brinkmanship, Saddam misreads global and regional balances and interprets events to reinforce his regime's policies. Similarly, the US misreads the impact of its actions on Arab and Muslim peoples. In this respect, the statement that the recent military actions were taken just before the holy month of Ramadan in order to show "sensitivity" to Muslims was resented by Muslims as fraudulent and patronizing.

The incapacity of the United States to discern the consequences of its attack, which were claimed to protect and safeguard Iraq's neighbors, shows an inability to anticipate the reaction of people throughout the Arab world. For one thing, even at the peak of inter-Arab conflicts there is always a nagging sense of embarrassment when one party requires the shielding of a superpower.

Beyond that, operation Desert Fox has left other debris in US-Arab relations. The goodwill generated by President Clinton's recent visit to Gaza, as well as earlier efforts to salvage the Oslo peace process, have been largely squandered. What stands out to the Arab world is the glaring contrast between the US military action against Iraq and US protectiveness when Israel violates UN Security Council resolutions.

So, while Saddam's regime might be very unpopular among many sectors of the Arab population, US insistence on maintaining sanctions that undermine the survival and sense of dignity of the Iraqi people is much more unpopular. In additional, when a former member of the UN arms inspection commission for Iraq acknowledges a relationship with Israeli intelligence, even UNSCOM's legal interventions are perceived as intrusive and adversarial.

If UNSCOM is to restore its credibility and effectiveness, its composition and leadership must be reconfigured, as asked for by a growing number of UN members.

Now that the UN is delving into the institutional consequences of the Dec. 17 attack on Iraq, an enhanced preventive role for the UN secretary-general must receive serious intellectual and political attention. Decoupling a reconstructed UNSCOM from the UN's humanitarian efforts will help insulate the Iraqi people from the daily disasters imposed by sanctions for alleged or actual noncompliance.

Furthermore, Arabs feel very strongly that disunity among their governments has rendered their overall Arab patrimony vulnerable and fragile. The divided Arabs are seen as easy prey for the US and Israel, which can project their power with impunity - a state of affairs that, at times, drives people to uncontrolled, though understandable, anger.

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The studied contempt with which the "Arab street" is dismissed by most US officials and media creates a serious impediment to a US-Arab dialogue of consequence. Instead, US relations with the Arab world are confined to leaders ready to comply with US policies. This fritters away the chances of healthy interaction, since the US government hears from Arabs what it likes to hear, rather than what it ought to hear.

Meanwhile, a lukewarm call by Yemen for an Arab summit to deal with the Iraq situation has been postponed until after the holy month of Ramadan. So much for the urgency. Add to this the marginality of the UN's presence in Iraq and you have a prescription for a repeat explosion.

* Clovis Maksoud, former ambassador from the League of Arab States to the UN and the US, is director of the Center for the Global South and a professor of International Relations at American University.

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