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Arab states united in rejecting attack on Saddam
18 March 2002
Rarely can an American vice-president have met such a rebuff from America's Arab allies. Not a single Arab king, prince or president has been prepared to endorse a US attack on Iraq.
Even in Kuwait where Dick Cheney arrives today before going on to Israel an opinion poll suggests that more than 40 per cent of its citizens are hostile to Washington's policies.
In every Arab capital, Mr Cheney has been politely but firmly told to turn his attention to the Palestinian-Israeli war, and forget the "axis of evil" until the US brings its Israeli allies into line. All Mr Cheney's efforts to pretend that the conflict in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel is separate from Iraq or "two tracks" as the American cliché would have it have failed.
Crown Prince Abdullah, Saudi Arabia's First Deputy Prime Minister, met Mr Cheney at the end of a long red carpet at Jeddah airport, but the Saudi press were not so polite. One newspaper carried a front-page article condemning US policy in the region almost unheard of in the kingdom while editorials in other Gulf papers uniformly condemned any assault on Iraq. Prince Abdullah has gone out of his way to explain to US television audiences why he opposes military action against the Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein, while Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Foreign Minister, has told the Americans that they cannot use the Prince Sultan air base for any war against Baghdad.
Repeatedly, Arab leaders have turned Mr Cheney's arguments about America's "war on terrorism" around. For them, the terror is being inflicted upon Palestinians by Israelis. If President Saddam is overthrown, Iraq could break apart, the US Vice-President was told several times, with incalculable effects on Iraq's Muslim neighbours.
Even the small United Arab Emirates had no time for the Cheney argument. The Vice-President's spokeswoman, Jennifer Millerwise, said that Mr Cheney "made the point that al-Qa'ida can't be allowed to reconstitute" in the Middle East. The government of the UAE President, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahayan, retorted briskly that he was opposed to military action in Iraq.
The Arabs might be forgiven their confusion over Mr Cheney's objectives. If America wishes to pursue its "war on terror", what has Iraq got to do with it? Where is the evidence that Saddam was involved in 11 September? None exists, so Mr Cheney has invented a new dogma for Arabs: "The United States will not permit the forces of terror to gain the tools of genocide" he said. President Saddam has "weapons of mass destruction" and they could fall into the hands of Osama bin Laden.
Since Mr bin Laden hates President Saddam and has gone on record to say as much, just how the Iraqi weapons, if they exist, would reach America's nemesis is unclear. And the Arabs have been asking who is threatening genocide in the Middle East? Who is being attacked?
The one Middle East nation that supports a strike at Iraq is Israel, where Mr Cheney is expected to arrive later today. The Vice-President will therefore hear what he wants to hear from the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, whose reoccupation of Palestinian territory has done so much to destroy his mission.
Robert Fisk, in Beirut