America’s closest ally in the Persian Gulf Saudi Arabia also could be its toughest challenge in building support for a military attack on Iraq.
Saudi resistance, spelled out in comments Sunday by a senior Saudi official, complicates U.S. efforts to get full cooperation from countries in the region at a time when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was arriving to consult on the standoff between the United Nations and Iraq.
“Saudi Arabia will not allow any strikes against Iraq, under any circumstances, from its soil or bases in Saudi Arabia, due to the sensitivity of the issue in the Arab and Muslim world,” the Saudi official told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Even U.N. Security Council approval of an attack would not change the Saudi position, the official said.
The United States has plenty of fighter jets and troops afloat in the Persian Gulf, but it relied heavily on Saudi and Turkish bases during the 1991 Gulf War.
These days, Turkey, too, is reluctant to allow itself to be used as a launching pad. Ankara announced Sunday it would send Foreign Minister Ismail Cem to Baghdad to help negotiate a diplomatic end to the standoff over U.N. weapons inspections.
Iraq has been sparring with U.N. inspectors and the United States over access to suspected weapons sites, and U.S. calls for military strikes have been getting louder in recent weeks.
Bill Richardson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said Sunday that he has received commitments from two countries to publicly support the United States should it decide to attack Iraq.
“The United States will not be alone,” Richardson said during a world forum in Davos, Switzerland. He refused to identify the countries.
The U.N. inspectors must certify Iraq has destroyed all of its weapons of mass destruction before the U.N. Security Council will lift tough economic sanctions imposed after Iraq invaded neighboring Kuwait in 1990, prompting the Gulf War. The Security Council insists on unfettered access for its inspectors; Iraq contends access to some sites, including presidential palaces, would violate its sovereignty.
Albright explained America’s position Sunday night in talks with the emir of Kuwait, Sheik Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah.
State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said Albright told Kuwaiti officials: “The United States stood with you when Saddam Hussein attacked you seven years ago; the United States stands with you in the face of Saddam’s threat today.”
Rubin said Albright believes she has “the 100 percent support” of the government of Kuwait.
She was to consult today with leaders of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, then fly Tuesday to Egypt.
The United States has more than 4,000 troops and dozens of warplanes at bases in Saudi Arabia. Saudis, however, have been increasingly uncomfortable about their close ties with Washington since the June 1996 bombing of a U.S. military barracks in eastern Saudi Arabia. Nineteen American servicemen died in the attack, blamed on Muslim extremists.
U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia and Turkey were used extensively during the Gulf War, when an American-led coalition drove Iraq out of Kuwait. But the last U.S. missile strike against Iraq - a 1996 attack to punish President Saddam Hussein for sending troops into a Kurdish “safe haven” in northern Iraq - was launched from U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf.
Today, the United States has more than 24,400 troops aboard two aircraft carriers, the USS George Washington and the USS Nimitz, and their escort ships in the gulf. About half of the 342 warplanes in the gulf also are sea-based.
To many in the Arab world, a military strike on Iraq seems pointless, given that Iraqi citizens already are struggling from the seven years of economic sanctions. There also is distrust of Washington for its unwavering support for Israel.
“All Arabs, with one voice, should say to America, ‘enough,”’ said the Al-Ittihad daily in the United Arab Emirates. “If Saddam abused international law once, Israel has done it 100 times.”
Others say an attack on Iraq may be designed to divert attention from the sex scandal surrounding U.S. President Clinton.
“If Clinton’s administration is suffering a crisis because of his involvement in a sex scandal, 20 million Iraqis suffering under seven years of United Nations sanctions should not have to pay,” said the Emirates’ Al-Bayan daily.
There were several calls Sunday from for a non-military solution to the latest standoff:
Iranian President Mohammad Khatami urged the 55-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference to try to resolve Iraq’s dispute with the United Nations peacefully, state-run Iranian radio reported.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa told Associated Press Television in Davos that Egypt and other Arab countries were seeking a political solution. “I am not optimistic, but I would say I am hopeful,” he said.
Qatar’s Al-Rayah daily called for demonstrations against Albright’s visits to gulf capitals, something unheard of in the conservative region.
“We feel sorry that we haven’t heard of one Arab demonstration greeting Albright with placards carrying the word “no,” the Arabic-language paper said.
Russia, too, is working toward a nonmilitary solution, sending envoy Viktor Posuvalyuk to Baghdad for his second attempt at a negotiating a solution in less than a week.
France said Sunday it will send a top diplomat to Baghdad within 48 hours to “warn Iraq” about the risks it faces by not complying with U.N. weapons inspections.